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Showtime's "State of the Union" Finds Me in a State of Confusion

I'll be honest upfront: I heart Tracey Ullman.

That said, I was really looking forward to Ullman's new series, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, which launches on Sunday on pay cabler Showtime. I had loved Ullman in all of her television incarnations: The Tracey Ullman Show (which in turn spawned The Simpsons) and HBO's wacky and lovable Tracey Takes On, in which she performed a variety of recurring characters in episodes based around particular themes (greed, crime, the environment, etc.).

So when I was given a screener for Ullman's latest by the good folks at Showtime, I was giddy with excitement... a feeling that quickly faded once I actually watched the first episode of State of the Union. Since then, I've watched the premiere installment again, trying to parse some meaning into the twenty-something minutes of painfully creaky sketches and unfunny celebrity skewerings.

I'm not sure what Ullman's intent was when she set out to do State of the Union. Sure, it was to tell the story of a day in the life of America and I hoped that she's bring some of her insider/outsider and British/American sensibilities to the table. Instead, these sketches, for the most part, seem woefully dated (Dina Lohan) and not incisive or insightful enough.

It also doesn't help that there seem to be far too many characters jockeying for screen time. When Ullman pulled this shtick in Tracey Takes On, it worked because each of the characters that Ullman played had heart as well as the feeling that they were not only three-dimensional characters but could actually be real, living people. Here, they appear on screen for a few seconds before seguing into yet another sketch that only last another thirty seconds or so. One of the more interesting and original characters, a farmer's wife whose husband is perennially on another Iraq tour (when he's not using his prayer mat in the barn), is given short shrift when she's reduced to the merest punchline.

Another problem is that there seems to be a lot of repetition going on here. Do we really need to see Ullman--in one episode, no less--playing three different kinds of television reporters, none of whom are particularly interesting? I love that Ullman can transform herself into a variety of characters, but here they feel stock rather than unique and the parade of TV news ladies is distracting and monotonous. Skewering one "celebrity" in an episode is enough but to shoehorn Laurie David, David Beckham, Arianna Huffington, Tony Sirico, and Dina Lohan into a 20-odd minute installment is overkill.

But the biggest issue I had with State of the Union is that I couldn't read its shifting, confusing cues. A storyline involving an overworked Bangladeshi worker was downright depressing but, when presented next to an obscenity-laced Tony Sirico (spot-on impersonation) still cashing in on Paulie Walnuts even as he's meant to be playing an Inuit fisherman and an Indian pharmacist who turns her latest stick-up into a Bollywood musical extravaganza, it creates a little bit of an internal conflict. Am I meant to be laughing at these people? (But it's not funny enough for that.) Am I meant to look at this as a serious diatribe about the state of America today? (But it seems rather shallow and dated.)

Ultimately, I wasn't sure what to make of this series, which fails to be neither clever, sharp, or witty enough to sustain my attention and which seems overpopulated by a cast of characters already skewered numerous times by other comedians and television comedies. I'm happy to see Ullman back where she belongs on television but, in car-obsessed America, this is not the right vehicle for her to be driving.

Tracey Ullman's State of the Union launches Sunday evening at 10 pm ET/PT on Showtime.

Comments

It's too bad because I am a huge Tracy fan but this pilot was just downright boring. As always, I was impressed by Tracy's transformations (physically speaking) but the characters that she transformed into were neither neither clever nor funny.

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