Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Satire to Die For
By NANCY DEWOLF SMITH
The Wall Street Journal
Tracey Ullman is the best reason to subscribe to Showtime right now, and maybe ever. "State of the Union" -- the latest comedy sketch show in which she impersonates dozens of characters, real and imagined -- is also one of the best reasons to watch any TV at this point (Sundays 10-10:30 p.m. EST). As the second season began this month, Ms. Ullman was still making fun of the ways we live and think; more hilariously than ever but still without a shred of malice. Blessed with the insight of a transplant -- Ms. Ullman is British-born -- she knows that what is ridiculous or even lamentable in America is not evidence of evil or a fatal flaw. Not every joke will be to every taste. Yet Ms. Ullman and the other writers serve up so many that the greatest risk to the viewer here is of choking while laughing too hard.
Some of Ms. Ullman's most delicious parodies are of famous people: Céline Dion, Renée Zellweger, Arianna Huffington and Jodie Foster, to name only a few; and an especially delectable Heather Mills-McCartney.
First lady Laura Bush makes appearances, planning the No President Left Behind Foundation while she smashes a Dresden doll from that "Hausfrau, Angela Merkel" and chides an off-screen husband: "George, have you shot another genetically altered deer?"
Tough times call for Americans to adapt, and Ms. Ullman is full of fictional characters who can drive complex points home. A Bollywood routine sends an uninsured woman to India for bargain heart surgery and recuperation at the Two Seasons Hotel. We eavesdrop on stewardesses for an airline so chintzy that it charges passengers to respond to a call button, leaving the middle-aged attendants lots of time to chat among themselves: "You still trying to conceive with that gay steward from Lufthansa?"
In a nod to the ecological age, Buffalo local TV broadcaster Linda Alvarez tells us about an upcoming news feature: "How to convert your SUV to a guest room." More memorable still is the sight of a distressed driver pleading for help from On Star while crammed inside her 2009 Huzitzu Body Trap Hybrid. The tiny vehicle "gets 900 miles to the gallon" but requires her to drive in the fetal position.
There are satiric nods to national news. In an extended riff, the government has raided a polygamist compound. Various skits and characters then chart auditions and other events leading up to the smash Broadway polygamy musical: "Seven Brides for Every Brother."
Find television listings for these programs and more at LocateTV.Some set-ups we recognize from the world of glitz. There's Donna Karan redesigning Supreme Court robes, in "an organic cashmere-silk mix that draws moisture away from the body." We hear a song from Granny Cyrus -- while Miley and Billy Ray prepare to attend a "MTV father-daughter purity ball." We meet "child profiteer" Dina Lohan, lovingly sending her son to be managed by "David Archuleta's dad."
This week the chief target of Ms. Ullman's derision is J.K. Rowling, seen visiting the U.S. to terrorize people and organizations who are alleged to have breached her Harry Potter copyright. Among her targets for lawsuits: a burly homeless man charged for impersonating Hagrid.
Where else but on a Tracey Ullman show could we see the Dalai Lama as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars," or watch a skewering of Oregon's euthanasia law ("proudly overdosing the terminally ill since 2001")? Any icon can fall. A mumbling Tom Brokaw reports from the White House, where the Obama girls "claimed to have seen the ghost of Sammy Davis Jr. outside the Lincoln bedroom." How about meeting the daughter of "Hawaii Five-O" actor Jack Lord? Can she be any hipper than dad?
And what about all those Cirque du Soleil performers, with their Frenchy accents and weird bird masks? Ever wonder what's really going on there? Ms. Ullman not only thought to lift the veil, years after the rest of us accepted Cirque as chic and impeccably avant-garde. By mocking Cirque, she liberates us all.