In the ‘80s, chameleonic comedienne extraordinaire Tracey Ullman made her first TV appearances on a couple of British sketch shows and a sitcom before emigrating to the States, where she took her career to the next level by creating a handful of successful, critically acclaimed comedy programs, including introducing the world to the now-iconic Simpsons characters, and appearing in several major motion pictures.
After thirty years away from British TV, Ullman returned to her roots earlier this year with a new series, Tracey Ullman’s Show, which hits the US via HBO this week. It’s a sketch-comedy ode to the quirks, follies, national treasures and social controversies that define the Britain of today, fuelled almost solely by the veteran entertainer’s impeccable comedic gifts. Her talents as a performer are beyond question, but the humor does feel a bit dated and not provocative enough for American audiences, especially when you consider that a large chunk of the references and impressions will only ring true to those living across the pond.
Ullman takes on a couple of personalities that Americans will most certainly recognize, like the widely beloved Dame Judi Dench. The impression is staggeringly good, with Ullman capturing both the essence of the actor and the smallest details of her speech patterns and physicality. The comedy comes from the fact that her Dench is a perpetually naughty lady, obsessed with causing as much mayhem as possible and then evading blame by exploiting her status as a British icon of stage and screen. She steals from a convenience store, clogs up toilets at five-star hotels, pours soda on co-star Rupert Grint’s iPad, and gets away with it all because, well, who would dare accuse sweet, old, adorable Judi Dench of doing anything so mischievous and irresponsible?
Another recurring sketch features the equally adored Dame Maggie Smith, who’s put together a series of audition videos in which she campaigns to be in Star Wars and puts on a motion-capture suit (essentially a black onesie with white balls taped to it) to prove she’s quite capable of being the next Batman or Daredevil. Beyond the uncanniness of the impressions, the material just isn’t that funny. Seeing the Dames acting in such unbecoming ways is cute and may have been hilarious in the ‘90s, but more provocative jokes and ideas would have more keenly appealed to modern comedic sensibilities.
“When I was small I used to dance in my mother’s bedroom,” Ullman sings in the show’s opening tune, holding a hairbrush to her mouth. “Then I grew up and did it again!” It’s a perfect summation of the show: This is classic Ullman, and those who’ve remained loyal fans of her over the years will likely have little to no quibbles with the polished, virtuosic brand of humor she continues to champion. Younger viewers, however, likely won’t gravitate toward characters like Karen, who’s returned to Britain after spending 28 years in a Thai jail for drug smuggling and mourns the death of old shops like Woolworth’s and Blockbusters. Then there’s Sally Preston, a feminist MP who shows up to work topless in order to make career gains. It’s a funny bit, though once again, one can imagine the image of boobs in parliament would have less of an impact on American audiences.
Ullman’s as sharp an observational comic as ever, as showcased in a wonderful musical number concerning the recent closure of dozens of British libraries due to local government cuts. Most of us in the States obviously have little to no knowledge of the issue let alone have any opinion about it, but what the sketch – and Tracey Ullman’s Show as a whole, really – has going for it is that it’s incredibly well-crafted and led by one of the most consistent entertainers in the business. This may not be the most inspired or surprising work Ullman’s ever done, but it’ll definitely make devotees happy and assure them that their old friend Tracey has still got a lot left in the tank.