fans of Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show" 20 years ago and HBO's "Tracey Takes On" a decade ago were no doubt thrilled with the prospect of her new five-episode series, "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," premiering at 10 tonight on Showtime. Too bad this latest iteration disappoints.
It's not that "State of the Union" doesn't have funny moments, but the moments don't add up to much in a show with many miscalculations:
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Myers.
Starring: Tracey Ullman.
1) Too many imitations, not enough regular folk characters. What's more, the parodies are far too inside, too elite. Will many viewers outside Los Angeles care about Ullman's parody of Laurie David, the environmentally crusading, soon-to-be-ex-wife of Larry David? She's in every episode, always flying around in her gas-guzzling private jet.
2) Many of the sketches feel dated. Ullman's take on frog-voiced Rita Cosby might have been funny when Cosby was on a cable news network daily, but since she disappeared from MSNBC last year, the sketches seem stale. Similarly, why is Ullman's Campbell Brown still tossing her daily dose of fear reports ("Horror, terror, horror, terror, nightmare, horror, fear.") to NBC's "Brian" Williams when she's now on CNN?
3) Too many too-short sketches. Ullman creates several original characters for "State of the Union," including Indian pharmacist Padma Perkesh, who breaks into Bollywood-style musical numbers while dispensing prescriptions. But each sketch is so brief -- usually no more than two minutes -- that there's not enough time to get much of a sense about these characters except on the most superficial level.
4) There aren't really themes to the episodes, just an assortment of sketches highlighting American excesses held together by the intentionally overly serious narration of actor Peter Strauss.
But for all the show's missteps, there's always Ullman's undeniable talent to entertain. Her parodies of women (e.g. Renee Zellweger, playing a movie character who suffers from "chronic narcissistic squint") generally succeed better than her men. But in episode four, Ullman's wizened, tremulous Andy Rooney, gesturing with his hands in an unintentionally vulgar manner, is a scream.
The sexy, sudsy historical drama returns (9 tonight) without missing a beat: A poisoning, a Lee Harvey Oswald-style assassination attempt, a mysterious would-be-murderer and foreshadowing of a beheading that's yet to come -- and that's just in the first three episodes.
Michael Hirst, who writes all "Tudors" episodes, picks up with the "great matter" of King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who attempts to ditch his wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), in order to marry the cunning Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer).
A few new characters emerge, but more intriguing are the changes to established characters. Henry's best bud Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill) "grows up" and finds himself siding with the queen. Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), Henry's adviser, quits his post and quietly foments rebellion against Henry's annulment behind the scenes.
In Rome, Pope John Paul II (Peter O'Toole in a rascally performance) proves himself as interested in playing politics as Henry, while not wanting to antagonize the king.
"After all, they have soldiers and guns," the Pope says. "We must make due with beauty and truth."
Then, regarding Anne Boleyn, he wonders aloud, "Why doesn't someone just get rid of her?"
In due time. But until Anne loses her head, "The Tudors" will most assuredly continue to satisfy fans of "Masterpiece Theatre"-style costume dramas, albeit one with a TV-MA rating (generally for nudity and sex).