Putting that enormous talent to work in a one-time special is a no-brainer as HBO has demonstrated time and again, but figuring out a way to package Ullman's brilliance in a series, week after week, is harder. American viewers haven't been enthralled by a primetime series with great characters and sketch comedy since the heyday of Carol Burnett during the 1970s.
"Tracey Ullman's State of the Union" just might be the right vehicle, but if so, it needs some customizing. Each half-hour show consists of a single day in the U.S. In scene after scene, Ullman presents Americans from Los Angeles to New York and plenty of points in between. Many, but not all, of these characters show up week after week.
The premiere introduces many of the characters. I counted 16, but I could have missed one or two. It's a showcase for Ullman's remarkable skill, but it is done too fast for the comedy to percolate. We barely have time to figure out who the character is before there's another one. And another.
Things are better in succeeding episodes. There's more emphasis on developing a sketch than on seeing how many characters can be packed into Ullman's comedy phone booth.
Several of Ullman's creations stand out immediately: Chanel Monticello, a airport luggage inspector, is hilarious. Also smart are Marion Churchill, a Jamaican caregiver; Padma Perkesh, an Indian pharmacist who gives advice Bollywood-style; and Doris Basham, a senior citizen caught with Canadian meds.
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