Tracey Ullman is about as close as we're ever probably going to get to Carol Burnett: The Next Generation. A formidably talented mimic (aided by some of the most amazing makeup you've seen), with a fine and finely tuned satiric eye for the foibles of American life, Ullman is incredibly engaging in her many, many guises throughout her new Showtime series State of the Union, the first five episodes of which are presented on this new DVD. If the writing is occasionally a little too "inside the Beltway" (and/or Hollywood sign), and not quite as sharp as it could be, Ullman's chameleon-like ability to morph herself into various characters of both sexes offers enough entertainment value to keep most viewers involved even when the punchlines aren't exactly stellar.
British-born Ullman probably first became well-known to American audiences with her eponymous sketch show on Fox, which also introduced a little family known as The Simpsons for some interstitial animated segments. Ullman started her tradition of creating manifold characters on that show, something she carried through with her HBO series Tracey Takes On..... But nothing that's come previously will completely prepare you for the mind-boggling array of characters Ullman portrays here, everything from such well-known celebrities as Arianna Huffington, Andy Rooney and David Beckham, to "everyday folk" like an African American TSA airport worker, a Jamaican caregiver to an elderly New York Jewish woman, a Buffalo, New York news anchor or a Nebraska woman with restless leg syndrome always out in her backyard hanging up laundry. Ullman, who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, is obviously having a ball sending up her new homeland, and she does most of it with impeccable style and sharpness.
Each episode takes us through one day of several of these characters' stories, mixing them up with briefer "guest star" cameos, both by Ullman in one-off performances, or such other stars as Scott Bakula as a womanizing executive on the make with one of his underlings (literally). There are running gags sprinkled throughout the show, including portrayals of Larry David's ex Laurie, the environmental activist, flying over the nation in her custom Lear jet which is powered by alternative fuels, then-NBC (now CNN) newswoman Campbell Brown informing us daily that the world is about to end, and an Indian (as in far east Indian) pharmacist who breaks into a Bollywood style musical number as she dispenses drugs to various customers.
There is some very, very funny stuff here, my personal favorites being Ullman's hilarious Campbell Brown and Linda Alvarez, the Buffalo news anchor, whose pronunciation of her surname alone will be enough to elicit at least a giggle from most viewers. If some of the other bits fall a little flat, notably Arianna Huffington (Ullman's approximation of Huffington's thick accent is so spot-on that she's virtually indecipherable at times), there's a sweetness to this mimicry that keeps it from seeming mean-spirited, and these good intentions help lighten the atmosphere even when the jokes aren't particularly funny.
The show also has a nice visual component, with neat animated "aerial" shots of the United States zooming into various locales where the characters live. There's also some very smart use of music (aside from the Bollywood parodies), including several cribs from that "other" émigré who made a big deal about coming to America, Antonin Dvorak.
Ullman, whose impressive talents haven't readily translated into a sustained big screen career, is easily one of the most appealing and multi-faceted stars the little screen offers nowadays. State of the Union provides a neat little foundation on which she gets to build several fascinating characters. If the show tried to be a little less insular and such a show-biz "wink-fest," it might have a little more resonance for the public at large. As it stands, it's an amazing largely one-woman tour-de-force and should be seen if only for the palpable amazement value it holds in watching Tracey take on so many disparate characters with such incredible aplomb.