In some ways, Tracey Ullman’s new sketch comedy show has much in common with her previous ventures. Like 1987’s “The Tracey Ullman Show,” 1996’s “Tracey Takes On…” and 2008’s “Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union,” the HBO series debuting tonight features her trying on a wide range of roles, some recurring, some just for a minute or two. As is characteristic of her work, the sketches — usually quite short segments — are interspersed with surprisingly skillful musical numbers where Ullman sings and dances. And of course, like all of those shows, “Tracey Ullman’s Show” has her name on it — a nod to her brand and her creative control.
But there is one major difference: “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” a coproduction between HBO and the BBC, is decidedly British — almost incomprehensibly British, to the average American. Rather than take the issue-oriented approach of “Tracey Takes On…” or the American-exploration approach of “State of the Union,” “Tracey Ullman’s Show” is steeped in British politics and personalities. It’s a quaint, educational, and at times quite funny journey, but it requires a different level of investment than an average episode from “Key & Peele” or “Portlandia.”
For example, in a particularly niche sketch from an early episode, Ullman plays Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of News of the World implicated in a massive phone-hacking scandal who was last year re-hired by Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper operations in the U.K. Ullman plays Brooks as the witch haunting a quaint English village, corrupting little girls by telling them they’d one day do well on Page Three (The Sun’s notorious topless-model section, discontinued in print in 2015). When she’s discovered, Ullman-as-Brooks-the-witch flees the irate villagers and is rescued from a conveniently timed horse with rider — sent to her, she discovers, by the always-helpful Murdoch. As she flees, she shouts back in triumph: “You can’t get rid of me! I’m like cockroaches, herpes, and Piers Morgan!”
It’s not always ideal to watch comedy with half an eye on Wikipedia, looking up who or what just got made fun of. But Ullman makes it a fun adventure. In an appropriately silly series of sketches, Ullman plays Maggie Smith screen-testing for those trendy science fiction movies; in another, she plays Dame Judi Dench, “a national treasure,” vandalizing property and getting away with it just because she can. Her voice impressions of both are so impeccable they’re uncanny. There are a few mostly universal bits — a rapacious modeling agent who runs after pretty girls in shopping malls; a misogynist app developer who is taking up too much space in a coffee shop.
But even when it’s possible to enjoy the sketches on their own, it’s frequently clear that underneath her varied accents and dropped hints, Ullman is weaving a grander commentary about class and identity, tapping into a distinctly British set of concerns that doesn’t quite have an analogue in the States. Her impression of Camilla, once Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cambridge, is as much about class as it is about royalty — mocking both her oddly ruthless gentility and her inability to entertain a baby. And in her portrayal of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ullman is nodding to a set of stereotypes about Eurozone politics that, I confess, I could not follow at all (though it was funny when Ullman-as-Merkel berated Nicola Sturgeon for wearing the same pantsuit as her). Even though it’s all in English, something gets lost in translation.
These hints at British perspectives somewhat obscure the fact, for an American audience at least, that these sketches are not always brilliant or well-executed. Though so much of her success as an impressionist is in the details, when it comes to punchlines, Ullman prefers blunt edges to sharp humor. A brilliant rendering of a character sometimes fizzles out with a joke structure that veers broad, childish, or even crass, in a turn that tends to flatten the show’s humor. “Tracey Ullman’s Show” is inherently far from innovative; Ullman is using almost the exact same methods she debuted in Britain 30 years ago. It makes the show feel a bit like a relic, when half-hour shows have proven to be one of the most fertile and imaginative formats on TV today.
Still, if its scheduling speaks to anything, it’s that people at home watching HBO at 11 p.m. on a Friday might be more inclined than most to enjoy Ullman’s tea-cozy comedy — very British, comfortingly dated, and just snarky enough to be interesting. Ullman’s versatility, commitment to tap-dancing, and continued enthusiasm for embodying anyone and everyone have their own unique appeal. “Tracey Ullman’s Show” is like an oddity found at a flea market — interesting only to an audience who already reads something into it, or knows about where it came from, or is eager to add to a dusty, long-neglected collection.