Tracey Ullman is a British success story most Britons haven't heard of, or at best have long forgotten about. Once part of 1980s shows like A Kick Up the Eighties and Three of a Kind, Ullman famously emigrated to America and found huge success with The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-90) and Tracey Takes On... (1996-99), and is now ranked as the UK's wealthiest female comedian. She definitely lived the American Dream, but now in her late-50s she's returned to her homeland for Tracey Ullman's Show on BBC1.
It's easy to label Ullman's return as acknowledgment her star's fading (her last success on U.S TV ended six years ago with Tracey Ullman's State of the Union for Showtime), and maybe there's some truth to that. Or maybe Ullman feels her career is incomplete without conquering the country she was born in? It's possibly a mix of both. Whatever the reason for her return to these shores, Ullman's back with a late-night sketch show that won't win awards for originality and certainly isn't cutting-edge comedy, but it's a decent vehicle for a very talented woman.
Ullman's greatest skill lies in mimicry and impersonation, so it wasn't a surprise the best moments of this series opener centred around Ullman pulling off a frankly uncanny Dame Judi Dench and Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. The excellent makeup helped, but Ullman has one of those faces that can effortlessly morph into other people, almost without the need for fake noses and wigs.
It's just a shame that, like so many modern sketch shows, the material itself was so dull and safe. Tracey Ullman's Show is airing at 10:45pm (suggesting something a bit risqué), but it would play better for family audiences at 8pm. And the format of the show isn't very inspired or creative; even ending on a song-and-dance routine set inside a library, like it's still 1986.
The opening Judi Dench gag—that she's a shoplifter but gets away with it because she's a "national treasure"—contained awful dialogue that bluntly stated the joke being told, like we're stupid. Most other sketches weren't as tin-eared as that one, but few proved memorable and outright hilarious—although I quite enjoyed the recurring joke of a northern woman adjusting to life in Britain after spending 28-years in a foreign jail for drug-trafficking, mainly because there were faint echoes of Ullman herself coming home to roost.
Indeed, quite a few of the sketches had elements of the Britain Ullman left behind having now vanished. Maybe the show will get more interesting if Ullman's using it to explore her unique position as a woman with two feet across the Atlantic, able to get at how the UK's evolving in positive and negative ways. At any rate, she does a fantastic Angela Merkel and perhaps now won't be just a piece of The Simpsons trivia to most Brits*.
BBC1 • Tuesdays
(* The Simpsons famously debuted on Tracey Ullman's '80s U.S TV series as cheaply-produced animated sketches. But you knew that, right? Everyone knows that.)