Keeping a watch on TV

The God-awful truth about HBO’s award-winning Dennis Miller and Tracey Ullman

They’re hailed by critics, showered with Emmys and CableACEs, and aired on HBO — home of the brilliant Larry Sanders and Chris Rock shows. So Dennis Miller Live and Tracey Takes On… must be hilarious, right?

Diagnose it as Arli$$ syndrome: Like Robert Wuhl’s fumblingly unfunny HBO sports satire, Dennis Miller‘s listen-to-me-talk show and Tracey Ullman‘s over-the-top-of-the-top skitcom are frequently mistaken for quality series. In fact, they’re damn near unwatchable.

Both shows ostensibly examine one theme each week. Miller’s recent season premiere focused on cynicism, and the spectacle of Senor Smug haranguing us about the dangers of becoming too jaded was only slightly less hypocritical than a Laetrell Sprewell lecture on the importance of getting along with your boss.

Miller packs his material with pop references, but he seems out of touch; he still tells MacGyver jokes, and he mistakenly referred to Hanson as ”twins.” Unlike Chris Rock, who strategically drops F-words like A-bombs, Miller strafes his monologues with profanity, neutralizing its shock value — and comic impact. Most painful are his patented ”rants”: The lights go down and the camera creeps in close as Miller recites overwritten jeremiads (e.g., ”Apathy feeds like a suckbird on cynicism’s bloated carcass”).

For a guy who routinely takes cheap shots at celebs, Miller is a shameless kiss-ass with his guests. His straight-faced intro for Sharon Stone was jaw-droppingly shallow: ”I hardly know this woman, I’ve only met her five times…she’s a good friend, Sharon Stone!” He then lobbed puffballs (”You had some kind of a, like, rebirth spiritually?”) and let the Sliver starlet spout an amalgam of therapy-speak and actor-speak (”I recognize that to be happy is the courageous choice”).

And as if it weren’t bad enough that Miller habitually laughs at his own jokes, he makes the guests stick around during his closing mock newscast, so the cameras can cut to them wiping tears of joy from their eyes. At least somebody’s amused.

Still, I’d rather endure a 24-hour Miller marathon than suffer through another second of Tracey Takes On… Each episode opens with the British ex-pop star’s sole hit single, 1984’s ”They Don’t Know,” which serves as her show’s theme. Then Ullman attempts to dazzle us with her versatility, playing multiple characters with one thing in common: silly acccents.

At their best, these figures are grotesque, one-dimensional caricatures. At their worst, they’re offensive ethnic stereotypes. Take Chic, the horny, hostile, hirsute Middle Eastern cabbie; or Mrs. Noh Nang Ning, the Asian-American doughnut-shop owner with the Charlie Chan accent (”I have velly crean prace!”); or Sheneesha, the surly, jive-talking African-American airport employee. Even the characters’ makeup isn’t convincing — it looks clumpy and Play-Doh-like.

Ullman’s 1987-90 Fox variety show (now remembered as the series that launched The Simpsons) benefited from a talented ensemble that included Julie Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, and Sam McMurray. But even such great character actors as Seymour Cassel, Paul Dooley, and Maury Chaykin can’t save Tracey Takes On…‘s wafer-thin material.

Ullman ends each episode of her shows by telling the audience to “Go home!” If only she’d taken her own advice a long time ago.