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Case Number 09973: Small Claims Court

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Tracey Takes On: The Complete First Season

HBO // 1996 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 6th, 2006

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders what Tracey Ullman's impersonation of a film critic would be like. On the other hand, maybe it is best not to know.

Editor's Note

Our review of Tracey Takes On: The Complete And Final Seasons, published August 5th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

"Tracey who? Oh yeah, she's that snippy little Brit girl who takes all the parts so no one else gets a crack at it."—Rayleen (Tracey Ullman)

The Case

It is a little sad to think that, as time passes, what was once groundbreaking often narrows itself into a trivia question. In another decade, it is likely that Tracey Ullman will be remembered primarily as the entertainer whose show launched The Simpsons. (Just as In Living Color will mostly be remembered for starting the careers of Jennifer Lopez and Jim Carrey, or Rawhide for Clint Eastwood.)

As I said, this is sad, because the wry Ullman, with her Cheshire Cat smile, has always had an uncanny ability to vanish right in front of you. In her place, you find a new person, never entirely present and fully formed, but always slipping right out from under your grasp as you try to make sense of the world you find yourself in. This is the essence of Ullman as a comic actress (and why she has never been able to sustain a leading movie performance, for better or worse): for a few minutes, you see a new person, slightly exaggerated, perhaps a little desperate—and invariably funny.

After watching her stepchild, The Simpsons (whose voice cast is largely made up of performers from her Fox series), nearly erase our collective memory of her clever Fox television series, Tracey Ullman tread water for a few years. Sketch comedy shows were dead on network television, after all. And movie scripts never seemed to offer Ullman the chance to completely immerse herself in a character utterly unlike her real self.

Tracey Takes On is a thematized showcase for Ullman's characters. Each episode focuses on a particular subject, allowing Ullman to group characters and sketches accordingly. At first, this might seem like a burden to the show's writers. After all, sketch comedy shows tend to run all over the place because the writers do not always approach their material in a theme-oriented fashion, and if they do ("Hey, let's write a bunch of sketches about law"), they usually throw out most of them and leave one or two to plug into the show (and invariably not in the same episode).

The first two discs of Tracey Takes On—The Complete First Season cover ten episodes:

• "Romance:" Hope is a bookworm who is terrified to talk to cute guys, but in her mind, she is a dancer. Chic the cab driver thinks he is a babe magnet. Julie Kavner guests as a lesbian pro golfer who refuses to publicly acknowledge her lover. This episode also includes a commentary track from Ullman, who seems very sedate but pleased with her work. She clearly loves the make-up (she claims to even put a fake phallus in her pants when playing male characters) and gets excited at the prospect of becoming somebody else. She even says that she threatened to pick up her kids from school dressed in character. Listen also for her uncanny Julie Kavner impersonation.

• "Charity:" Jewish maven Fern Rosenthal plans a Boca Raton "all-singing, all-dancing, all-Kosher Wild West Revue." Second-rate celebrity Linda Granger does a PSA for an animal shelter with monkey trainer Rayleen. Cheech Marin plays a homeless guy who hooks up with the clueless Kay Clark, a sheltered woman whose entire life has been controlled by her invalid mother.

• "Nostalgia:" Ruby Romaine, retired movie make-up artist, tries to remember the glory days of Tinseltown and a movie set with Ernest Hemingway in a mock documentary. Elderly survivors of Soviet oppression tell stories of the old country in a very bittersweet sketch. Wannabe hippie Erin "remembers" her encounters with Janis Joplin and others—that happened before she was actually born.

• "Royalty:" Alfred Molina shows his comedy chops as a displaced nobleman selling used cars—or is he a con artist? College student Hope thinks "people are just people," even if America has its own sort of royalty. Virginia Bugge, the wife of a member of Parliament (Hugh Laurie), promises her hubby "a good spanking—and I'll let you watch Baywatch" when he scores a dinner party with the queen (who turns out to be very snippy).

• "Family:" Donut-shop owner Noh Nang Ning pushes her kid too hard on the skating rink, shocking push-over mom Julie Brown. Gay flight attendant Trevor (who chats briefly with fashion editor Janie Pillsworth, also played by Ullman) is asked to father a baby with guest star Joanna Gleason. Trevor's boyfriend (Michael McKean) is not amused. And Hope makes a bad experimental art film about family.

• "Law:" Attorney Sydney Cross tears up a witness on the stand in defense of her client, a stripper who got a scar on her derriere. Fern Rosenthal and her husband (Michael Tucker) try to stop the construction workers making noise in the street—and they end up in the middle of a drug sting.

• "Vanity:" Sad sack Kay Clark gets a brief ego boost when she has a makeover for a bridesmaid fitting. Attorney Sydney Cross uses her awful new hairstyle to distract a witness on the stand. Fashionista Janie Pillsworth leads a photo shoot in war-ravaged Bosnia. Watch her try to explain the Balkan conflict to a brain-dead fashion model.

• "Death:" Virginia Bugge's husband is caught up in a scandal—and she suggests a radical way to retain his honor. Ruby Romaine is hired to do a special, final make-up job for an old client. Kay's near-death experience is just as pathetic as the rest of her life.

• "Health:" Sydney Cross finally has a meltdown and is sent on a spa vacation, where she offers to represent a host of other Ullman characters (stuntwoman Rayleen, editor Janie Pillsworth, has-been singer Linda Granger) in a personal injury lawsuit. Fern Rosenthal takes up mall walking, while Harry's repressed rage turns into back pain.

• "Fame:" Linda Granger's attempt at a comeback (including a bad dinner theater show with Alex Karras) stalls, so she hires a stalker—and it all goes very wrong. This darker-than-usual tale runs nearly the entire episode and takes a clever pomo twist at the end, allowing Ullman to even comment on her own reputation as a chameleon. If you see only one episode of Tracey Takes On, this should be it.

This show demonstrates how fearless Ullman is as a performer. Even in sketches that might drag in any other show or with any other comic actor, Ullman throws herself fully into these characters, covers herself in make-up, and imbues the show with an energy that carries the audience right to the end. She can even successfully play against herself, have characters meet one another in sketches, and the scenes hold up. And Ullman has been doing this for going on three decades without any waning of her talent. The closest thing America has produced in recent years as a successor to Ullman is Amy Sedaris. (Can you imagine what might happen if you paired these two up?)

Some recurring characters—idealistic British expatriate Kay, fussy Jewish retiree Fern Rosenthal—Ullman uses to build sketches often around a clever roster of guest stars (some noted above). Other characters—flight attendant Trevor, cab driver Chic (both men)—are really only useful for delivering punch lines and musing on the day's theme, since they don't stand up as well on their own. But even the major characters sometimes just turn up in an episode to tell a joke. This gives us the sense that these characters live on during the space between shows, giving them extra dimension. She also has the good sense to let her guest stars shine. For example, in the "Law" episode, Harry Rosenthal's eagerness to prove his worth to the cops (after feeling he has "lost something" in his retirement and old age) is rather touching and gives the sketch and emotional arc to balance Fern's kvetching.

Sketches range from realistic glimpses into the minds of unusual people to surreal, almost magical surprises, like Kay's vision of Heaven in the "Death" episode. There are few big punch lines, and some sketches are really character pieces. Bits can range from a few seconds to several minutes—rarely does a character overstay his or her welcome. Credit is due to the writers for knowing when enough is enough. Ullman does recycle many of the characters, but again, each appearance only gives us a little taste, a little sense of one person's perspective on the theme of the day, and then we move on.

None of the satirical jabs are especially fresh—charitable people are often hypocrites, people fuss unnecessarily over royalty—but the fun of the show is in watching how successfully Ullman inhabits these characters. And when we warm up to the more interesting characters in her repertoire, we are carried along through an engaging little story that comments on familiar territory in an amusing way.

One thing that I do miss from this show that always brightened up Ullman's series on Fox is the musical numbers. I wish Tracey Ullman had thrown a few in now and again, since she is such a versatile performer. Oh well, at least she does the peppy theme song.

The set's third disc features a longer HBO special, Tracey Takes On New York, a 1993 HBO special that served as the springboard for the full series. This hour-long show follows a succession of Ullman characters on a tour of the Big Apple. The first story focuses on naïve Wisconsin tourist Penny and her hapless husband (Dan Castellaneta). Next, we meet overachieving Janie Pillsworth, whose unfashionable parents (Ullman plays her own mother) come for a visit. Then, the Rosenthals (not yet retired to Boca Raton) plan their daughter's wedding. Janie, the Rosenthals, and Linda Granger (who appears in the first sketch) would appear again in Tracey Takes On, so you might want to watch this first to catch the backstory for these characters.

Disc Three also features a set of "best of" compilations spotlighting Fern and Harry Rosenthal (twice!), Linda Granger, and Janie Pillsworth—likely an effort by HBO to recycle material from the New York show when the Tracey Takes On series came around a couple of years later. Some of these sketches are from later seasons as well, so be prepared to see them again if you are hooked enough on this show to want future sets.

Some viewers may not warm to Tracey Ullman and her tendency to grab total control of this material. This show is all about her. And after ten episodes in a row, I did find myself wanting a break from some of the more prominent characters. (I could do without Sydney or Fern for a while.) But I am intrigued enough by what Ullman is doing here and fascinated with her energy as a performer to want to check out the later seasons of this show. I want to see what Tracey takes on next. And that is good enough for me.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: HBO
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish, Tracey Takes on New York only)
• English
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Comedy
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary Track on "Romance"
• Compilation Episodes
• Character Slide Show

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