the Union: Season One
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All photos © Showtime
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
iven the amount of time she’s been in the business, Tracey Ullman should have stopped being funny years ago. And yet not only has she not done so, but she doesn’t even appear to be close to hanging up a going out of business sign. Her latest project, “State of the Union,” which she created for Showtime, isn’t perfect, but it’s far more hit than miss. The series is essentially a platform for her to present an array of characters that make up, as Sarah Palin might say, this great nation of ours. (In fact, it’s a shame the material predates Palin’s arrival on the political scene, as I suspect Ullman would’ve whipped out a parody that surpasses Tina Fey’s.) Each episode is narrated by Peter Strauss, begins early in the morning, and proceeds to spend a few minutes with various residents of the U.S. throughout the day, all played by Ullman, until the cycle winds down at bedtime. She plays the famous, the blue collar, the rich and the poor, but mostly she plays the idiotic. That Ullman was born in Britain is probably not all that important, nor does it make her any less of an authority on America, since she’s lived here since the late 80s.
Over the course of the five 25-minute-long episodes presented here, there must be no less than 50 or 60 characters. Some are one-offs, and some we keep coming back to time and again, as if we’re getting daily updates on their lives. One of the funniest is pharmacist Padma Perkesh, who doles out advice to her customers in the form of elaborate Bollywood musical numbers. Arianna Huffington, we discover, falls asleep snuggled up against her laptop, as if it were her lover. Airport security screener Chanel Monticello is a character Ullman plays in full black face, which doesn’t come across anywhere near as controversially as you’d think – maybe because Ullman is so damn talented that we don’t even think twice. (Indeed, she plays a number of black characters here.)
We find out that Renee Zellweger is starring in a new movie about an affliction called Chronic Narcissistic Squint, Helen Mirren is playing in something called “Fish Out Those Old Teets,” and Suzanne Somers hawks a new item called the Vagisizer. One character, Sally Knox, is involved in an affair with a guy played by Scott Bakula. It’s one of the few ongoing storylines that seems less interested in commentary, and more concerned with just being funny. Environmental activist Laurie David (ex-wife of Larry) is an odd choice to keep returning to, and as unflattering a portrayal as any as she flies around the country in her private jet. Hopefully the woman’s got a good sense of humor. The only character that really doesn’t work for me is, oddly, Ullman’s take on fellow Brit David Beckham, but maybe that’s because I’ve never paid much attention to the guy and don’t really care if he’s pussy-whipped by Victoria.
If there’s one criticism to be lodged at the series (which has been given another season order for next year), it’s that the humor is incredibly topical, and in five or 10 years many of the jokes will leave people scratching their heads. It’s completely rooted in the here and now, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily make for timeless comedy. Nope, this is all about today, and Ullman sees that there’s a lot to poke fun at around every corner, and she’s clearly having a blast doing it.
Special Features: Given that the season itself adds up to only about 2 hours worth of material, there’s actually a decent selection of extras here. There’s a storyboard sequence for the opening titles, make-up tests (for which Ullman provides some very humorous commentary), two sections worth of extra material and deleted scenes, a blooper/outtake reel, and a selection of promos that Showtime used for the show. The only thing missing are episode commentaries, which frankly would have been a nice addition. The DVD is, however, packaged in a cardboard, eco-friendly slipcover, of which Laurie David would no doubt approve.