Tracey Ullman Makes Long Awaited Return on HBO

The chameleonic comedian's latest show lands on HBO Friday amid identity crises on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tracey Ullman gave "The Simpsons" their start nearly 30 years ago as squiggly interstitial segments on her Fox sketch show. But the British writer-actress, who expertly mines humor from the seemingly trivial, is far more than the answer to a TV trivia question.

Still, it's fitting that Ullman makes her long awaited return to U.S. television Friday on HBO with "Tracey Ullman's Show," less than two weeks after the landmark 600th episode of "The Simpsons." 

An even more significant piece of timing: The chameleonic comedian rides again with Britain and the U.S. in full-blown identity crises.

Ullman first rose to fame in the UK in the early 1980s, when she also got some initial U.S. exposure with her 1960s-style retro hit "They Don't Know" and its charming video, featuring a Paul McCartney cameo.

With her breakout Fox show, she bridged British-American comedic sensibilities via her very funny – and very human – creations, from Francesca the preternaturally precious teenager with two dads to Kay, the sad sack whose lethargic delivery of her first name adds a couple of syllables.

Ullman, as evidenced by her strongest characters, avoids caricature by striking subtle notes of underlying sadness. Like a lot of creative types who live in their own minds, the buoyant Francesca is a loner. So is languid Kay, whose life revolves around caring for her demanding elderly mother.

Ullman extended her run and character stable in the mid-1990s with HBO's "Tracey Ullman Takes on..." and Showtime's U.S.-centered "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," which premiered in 2008. She helped unleash a wave of funny women, from Tina Fey to Mindy Kaling, who make their mark behind and in front of the TV camera.

Ullman's new effort comes with Britain still reeling from the Brexit vote and the U.S. headed toward an election like no other. While Ullman's approach, in many respects, is a far cry from "The Simpsons," both are at their best reflecting the times through eccentric characters from ordinary places.

"Tracey Ullman's Show," which first aired on the BBC, focuses on British life and includes the return of Kay. Ullman also impersonates two dames – Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

While her spot-on impression of Angela Merkel already has traveled the world, via the Internet, Ullman will never have the reach of "The Simpsons." But there's nothing trivial about the comeback of a comic force who can play countless characters without turning into a human cartoon.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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