A big factor in whether or not you like Veep — the new HBO comedy series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless vice president, premiering Sunday, April 22 — will be how often your ears can stand to hear the F-bomb and its various four-letter cousins.
Have no illusions; the rapid-fire profanity in Veep is so ubiquitous that it makes an episode of The Sopranos sound like The Sound of Music. But if you can tolerate heavy (and at times creative!) doses of salty language, you will enjoy not only the best show HBO has offered in a long time, but a television show about politics that, at least so far, spares us the predictable ideological moralizing. Instead, Veep chooses to focus on the eccentricities and foibles of those attracted to political power.
Conservatives tired of heavy-handed messages in their popular entertainment will be thrilled at the show’s disinterest in our current political debates. At least in the first two episodes screened for Washington reporters at the U.S. Institute for Peace last week, there are no real messages, no Aaron Sorkin–esque inspirational speeches, no jabs at Republicans, and in fact no mention of real-life political figures at all.
(This doesn’t mean viewers won’t wonder which politicians inspired some characters, such as the lecherous elderly senator nicknamed “Rapey.”)
Sure, Dreyfus’s protagonist, Vice President Selina Meyer, is probably a Democrat. She’s a former senator from Maryland who ran for her own party’s nomination, won some primaries, but obviously fell short to the current president. In the first two episodes, her biggest headache involves a green-jobs task force and her personal crusade is getting federal buildings to replace their plastic eating utensils with environmentally friendly cornstarch-based ones. (Of course, a minor flaw is that the utensils tend to melt and bend when dipped into hot liquids. When her prop emerges crooked from coffee, she groans, “What, am I supposed to eat around corners with this?”)
The utter irrelevancy of most of her duties — there’s an offhand reference to her primary policy responsibilities as including Sudan and Mars — suggests Meyer was selected to unify her party and that she is even more marginalized than vice presidents traditionally are. The end result is that she and her staff are desperate for respect, terrified of gaffes, and frequently infighting with withering sarcasm and insults at a rate of fire best compared with a Gatling gun.
Even though the vast majority of the action takes place in Meyer’s office in the Old Executive Office Building, her daily work is so far away from the president that she might as well be in some overseas embassy. The president isn’t just off-camera; in the first two episodes, he isn’t even named. Worse, characters mention a rumor that the (also unnamed) first lady doesn’t like Meyer, nicknaming her “the creepy V.P.” A running gag is that whenever Meyer returns to her office, she asks if the president has called. It appears it will be many episodes before her scheduler, played by Sufe Bradshaw, answers affirmatively.
Any communication from the White House comes from an insufferably condescending and creepy White House aide, Jonah (Timothy Simons), who unsubtly mentions his presidential conversations and time in the White House with metronomic regularity and inevitably brings bad news. He heavily edits the vice president’s speech moments before she is to deliver it, leaving Meyer to lament, “What’s left here? I have ‘hello’ and prepositions.”
When Meyer’s weary veteran press secretary Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh) dismisses Jonah as “Doogie Howser,” the presidential aide shrugs, “I keep telling you, I have no idea who that is.”
HBO touts the program as revealing — “authentic without being specifically biographical about what it is like to hold the least effectual post in the most powerful office in the world” — and that is perhaps the only angle of the comedy that makes it specific to Washington. The vice presidency offers many of the trappings of presidential power — a motorcade, Secret Service protection, a taxpayer-provided mansion, speeches and media appearances — but the actual amount of power wielded by the office is dependent upon the president. Sometimes you get to be Dick Cheney; sometimes you end up being Nelson Rockefeller.
Veep is less political satire than an office comedy, with the universal, often-funny theme that everyone answers to someone else. The junior staff is terrified of failing the senior staff, the senior staff is terrified of failing the veep, and the veep is terrified of both the president and the media. Everyone fails, repeatedly and epically, to hilarious effect.
Some reviewers are calling Veep a comedic West Wing, but a much more accurate comparison is the classic BBC series Yes Minister (later rechristened Yes, Prime Minister), a comedic hit in Britain during the Thatcher years. Some argued that the series provided a subtly conservative message, by suggesting that there are no noble civil servants or politicians thinking of the public’s best interest. Everyone operates with a healthy dollop of self-interest, whether they crave public approval, promotions, budgetary authority, freedom from oversight, or more power. It is a cynical view, but four years after a president was elected on explicitly messianic themes, perhaps it’s healthy for the viewing public to consider a more skeptical view of the self-professed altruism of those attracted to political power.
Veep is created by British political satirist Armando Iannucci, and, like Yes Minister, the series mines the comedic potential of people whose ambition exceeds their ability. The lone exception to the cavalcade of incompetence is Reid Scott’s character, Dan Egan, a new political fixer who steps into the office as the cool, calculating personification of political proficiency — but also exhibits wildly uninhibited raw ambition. When the vice president’s chief of staff dismisses his motives by calling him a four-letter word that is a synonym for excrement, the veep replies enthusiastically, “Yes! I need a s***!” Of course, she is overheard.
Some reviewers have argued that Dreyfus makes an unconvincing political leader; many viewers will still see Elaine from Seinfeld. Some viewers will declare that her character is too gaffe-prone, awkward, hapless, and unsettling to represent an American leader who is merely a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Then again, our current vice president is Joe Biden.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.