This year, Tatiana Maslany won a well-deserved and overdue Emmy for her work as a small population of clones on “Orphan Black.” Her performance is remarkable, not least of all for the way she vanishes into each character. She is the “Clone Club,” and I can imagine her as the Three Faces of Eve, the 12 Angry Men, and the Dirty Dozen just as easily.
When I watch Maslany, I think of Tracey Ullman, another performer who inhabits characters to the point of magic. Ullman, whose latest HBO show, “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” airs Friday nights at 11, deploys her skills in comic settings, unlike Maslany, but both actresses have the rare gift of thorough transformation. She’s a bit of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best sketch artists alive today, and certainly deserving of a more ardent phrase than “another dependable veteran,” as The New York Times recently described her. She contains multitudes.
The new show is a lot like Ullman’s old shows, specifically “Tracey Takes on. . .,” on HBO from 1996-99, and “State of the Universe,” on Showtime from 2008-10. In short, it’s yet another vehicle for Ullman’s mad skills — a plus, since Ullman gets to play, but a negative in that the writing is a bit familiar. It’s basically a collection of vignettes with recurring themes and characters, including both Ullman originals and real people such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and actress Maggie Smith. All of the material is satirical, of course, including a job interview with a woman whose history includes genocide, and a memorable piece in which a female member of Parliament works to get attention to her cause by attending a political vote topless. Her vodka-loving Merkel is a direct hit, a leader obsessed with the idea that men are always looking at her sexually.
In my favorite recurring piece, Ullman becomes Judi Dench, as usual with significant help from her makeup people, who are clearly wizards in their own right. Her Dench is a twisted creature who, aware she is England’s beloved “national treasure,” gets away with a spate of petty crimes. She gratuitously clogs the toilets at fancy hotels, she destroys an iPad belonging to actor Rupert Grint (playing himself), and she shoplifts at a supermarket, all just because she can, because no one believes that Dench would actually stoop so low. The dame is a punk.
If Ullman’s work sounds like it belongs on “Saturday Night Live,” it doesn’t. This is why I more than admire her, and place her among a group of paragons of comedy including Lily Tomlin, Imogene Coca, and Madeline Kahn: She knows how to invest her kooky characters with heart, vulnerability, and poignancy. Some of the “SNL” performers, including Gilda Radner and Kristen Wiig, have been able to add pathos to their characterizations, but generally speaking the show doesn’t call for that kind of emotional note.
Ullman is more like Tomlin, whose characters in “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” could make you break into a smile as easily as they could break your heart. For all her joyful goofiness, Ullman has the power to convey a strong sense of disenfranchisement, as she does on the new show with a guy she invented named Dominic, who spends his time in a cafe deluding himself into believing he’s working on an important app. Likewise with Karen, who has just been freed after 28 years in a Thai jail for drugs and can’t make sense of the real world. As Ullman builds a city of people both real and imaginary — on the new show, that city is English, but in earlier shows that city was American — she makes them multi-dimensional. At times, the writing on “Tracey Ullman’s Show” may not push the political or cultural envelope enough, but that doesn’t obscure Ullman’s talent.
Over the summer, James L. Brooks, a creator of Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” — which, by the way, launched “The Simpsons” — talked about Ullman on the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron.” Calling her “a genius in the same way Andy [Kaufman] was a genius,” Brooks told Maron a story about a black man he’d never met before who knocked on his office door during production of the Fox show in the late 1980s, and began a conversation with him. “Suddenly,” Brooks said, “the guy says, ‘Jim, it’s Tracey.’ That’s how great she is.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.