Anyone who's ever watched one of Frank Caliendo's limp routines--or the average 2008 Saturday Night Live sketch--can tell you that there's more to a great impression that just getting the accent right. There has to be a reason for the spoof. The impressionist should either notice something unusual about a celebrity (or about the milieu in which the celebrity resides) or he or she should come up with something amusingly absurd, like the cliché of the standup comic doing an impression of "Jack Nicholson as a grocery clerk" or "Kirk Douglass as a congressman."
Tracey Ullman has always been a skilled impressionist--both of celebrities and of ordinary people--but the problem with her new Showtime series Tracey Ullman's State of The Union (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. EST) is that few of her characters offer much beyond a brief jolt of recognition. It's funny when Ullman portrays a Hispanic news anchor from upstate New York who speaks perfectly uninflected English except when she says her own name. But the joke is a quickie; there's nothing more to it. State Of The Union also offers scattered moments of lightly scorching satire, as when Ullman depicts cable news reporter Rita Cosby trying to seduce a prison guard in order to get an interview with a condemned murderer, or An Inconvenient Truth producer Laurie David taking a private jet to a ski resort, or Dina Lohan dealing with Lindsay's latest slip-up by crying into her booze at an LA nightspot. But again, those skits are over and done so fast that they can't really go any deeper than their initial idea.
That said, State Of The Union has a rhythm and style that sets it apart from the typical sketch comedy show. Each half-hour episode takes place over the course of 24 hours in America, criss-crossing the country to check in with immigrant day-laborers, housewives with Restless Leg Syndrome, and any number of foul-mouthed, self-absorbed famous folk. The sketches come fast and furious–roughly one per minute–but though the show's individual segments usually aren't much to get excited about, they do add up to something. This is a vision of America as a society of idlers, preeners and gossips, sustained by soldiers abroad and an imported workforce at home. (Some credit for this is likely due to one of the show's main writers, Bruce Wagner, who's always shown a gift for finding unexpected connections across the American class-scape.)
There are moments in the first episode that are inspired in their grotesquerie. Ullman plays Nancy Pelosi at a Botox appointment, and director Troy Miller keeps the camera trained on the faux-Pelosi's eyes and forehead as the needles pierce her flesh, drawing tiny dots of blood. Later, Ullman plays an Indian-born pharmacist who fills a customer's prescription while breaking into a full-on Bollywood musical number. In an aesthetic sense, State Of The Union is frequently exciting. But if you're looking to laugh? Well, this show's probably not for you.
-Showtime sent out the first five episodes of State Of The Union, and I watched the second one right after the first. It's more of the same, and I mean that quite literally. The second episode features mostly the same impressions as the first episode, and the same one-note jokes accompany those impressions. The only major difference is that the sketches run on maybe half-a-minute longer, and there are fewer of them.
-You know what State Of The Union most reminds me of? The American version of Aardman Animation's Creature Comforts, which CBS aired three times last summer before abruptly canceling the series. It too tried to summarize American life through a mosaic of character comedy, though Creature Comforts was funnier, and more cohesive. I wish CBS had stuck with it.