While HBO looks for shows to fill up its schedule, Showtime has two premieres this weekend. First, season 2 of The Tudors begins, and I don’t have much different to say about it than I did when it debuted. The tumult of Henry VIII’s reign, especially the schism between him and the Catholic Church, is rich material, and the soap opera of his multiple wives is naturally absorbing: it’s just a crime that Showtime couldn’t do better with the material than the thinly written eye candy it came up with. It’s a fitting contrast with HBO’s continuing John Adams, which is subtler and more engaged with ideas, but sometimes too eat-your-peas. It’s times like this I wish I could take high-concept Showtime and highbrow HBO and just smoosh them together.
And speaking of Showtime and HBO, the former HBO stalwart Tracey Ullman relocates to Showtime with State of the Union.
I reviewed State briefly in this week’s Time, and as a past fan of Tracy Takes On (and her Fox series), I wanted to like it better than I did. The beauty of Tracey Takes On was that Ullman was able to take her multiple skits and characters and weave them together in stories that added up to something bigger than just showing off her range. Whereas State of the Union, though sometimes brilliant (you have to see her as Tony Sirico, playing an Inuit fisherman in an indie movie), is more like her more recent specials for HBO: a mishmash of one impression and character after another after another.
State of the Union theoretically has an organizing structure: it’s presented as a documentary “day in the life” of America. And with characters that range from poor undocumented immigrants to celebs like Arianna Huffington and Dina Lohan, there seems to be some loose conceit that America is an increasingly polyglot country that buries its real problems under celebrity trivia. Or something like that. In theory. In practice, it’s a grab bag, with the interesting sketches (Ullman playing a farmer whose husband, on part-time duty in Iraq, has gone Muslim) mixed in with ones that are random or mean-spirited (does anyone care enough about Campbell Brown or Laurie David to lampoon them?). Others—like a sketch about an Indian-American pharmacist who breaks into a Bollywood dance in the middle of a robbery—have potential but don’t quite get there.
I gave the show a B- on our Downtime page; more accurately, it’s an uneven mix of As, Bs, Cs and Ds. It’s good to have Ullman back, but this is a melting pot whose contents are still a little undercooked.