HBO’s half-hour political sitcom, Veep, just concluded its second season on a high note. The first season was funny enough, but it felt a bit generic, a show that rested on fairly worn ‘politicians are incompetent nitwits’ schtick. But as we might have expected from a show created by Armando Iannucci, the wit has gotten sharper, the targets more pointed. And it’s really funny now, extraordinarily funny. It took a Brit to get our politics right.
In Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the Vice-President of the United States, Selina Myers, a loyal member of an unidentified major American political party, and a terrible human being. She’s grasping, selfish, incredibly ambitious, not terribly bright, and not remotely moral. When she learns that the President is having chest pains, she can’t quite hide the greedy smile on her face, and her every move is calculated to advance her own shot at the Presidency.
Most of the show features her interactions with her staff. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is Selina’s chief of staff, and the closest thing to a morally centered person on the show. Her entire life is spent in emergency mode, trying to extricate Selina from some major blunder or another. The great Tony Hale gives us another of his this-close-to-a-nervous-breakdown characterizations, while Reid Scott is brilliant as Dan Egan, a completely opportunistic careerist who would cheerfully stab his sister for a slightly better job title. Matt Walsh is Mike, the world’s worst communications director, and Sufe Bradshaw plays Sue, Selina’s unfazed and efficient personal secretary. I should also mention Timothy Simons as Jonah, a staffer whose job is essentially POTUS liaison, which means they all completely detest him.
The final episode of the second season involved the impeachment of the President (who we never see). Selina has to decide how loyal she should be to a politically damaged President, which essentially means, because she’s Selina, deciding the exact precise perfect time to jump ship. At one point, she decides that her best strategy might be to resign as Veep, thus positioning herself to run for President in the next election. So her entire staff starts desperately hunting for other jobs. But then, she decides to stick around (having coerced the President into a one-term only promise), and her staff just as quickly all come running back, filled with protestations of loyalty.
Funny as that all was, it can’t beat the comic highlight of them all, Selina’s trip to Finland. This clip only gives a hint of it, the extraordinary awkwardness of her gift exchange with the President of Finland. Both women have been instructed by their staffs to give magnificently inappropriate gifts, and both women have to sound diplomatic when they accept them. I was in tears.
Because that’s a lot of the fun of the show; Selina’s staff (and the White House staff with whom she interacts) aren’t just terrible people, they’re also hopelessly bad at their jobs. The overall impression isn’t that Washington is a cesspool–it’s that Washington is a clown college.
Now I should tell you that if you’re sensitive about foul language, don’t watch this show. Not only are all the characters (all of them) horrible, but their language reflects it–they swear essentially the whole time. They’re actually rather creative swear-ers. They cuss with some real panache. So if you’re bothered by bad language, really, honestly, just give this show a pass. I love it, I think it’s really funny. But that’s just me.
Veep is, obviously, political satire, and as such, it reminds me of shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And, like those shows, the attitude reflects that of Puck: “What fools these mortals be.” But there’s a difference. Jon Stewart is a fundamentally serious guy, who excoriates the American media and our current politics because he’s angry, angry at how serious our nation’s problems really are, and how little progress we seem to be making towards solving them. That’s also Colbert; he’s great at mocking Bill O’Reilly and similar conservative pundits, because the target of his satire tends to be conservatism itself.
No, the show Veep really reminds me of is The West Wing. The West Wing also focused on staff, on the people working behind the scenes. In fact, as I understand it, Aaron Sorkin’s original plan was to never show the President at all, though in time he grew so fond of Jed Bartlett, POTUS became the show’s central character. But we liked Josh and CJ and Leo and Toby–we liked the high-minded ideals of them all, we admired their grasp on issues. Jed Bartlett was the President liberals wish we’d had. And he was ably served by a staff that we wish was working in the West Wing today.
But, sadly, we’re also aware that the actual reality may well be closer to Veep. I doubt that anyone in government is as completely foolish and incompetent as Selina or her staff. But ambitious and grasping and more interested in careerism than governance? That strikes me as . . . not wholly inaccurate.
It bothers me, because I’m a liberal, and because one of the most important conservative talking points is that government is incapable of doing any good in the world. So Veep emerges as a far more effective piece of conservative satire than almost anything Rush Limbaugh could concoct. The problem is that conservatives believe in the genius of the American people, their entrepreneurial spirit, in hard work and in the far-reaching vision of capitalists. But Veep isn’t having any of that either. When we meet ‘ordinary Americans,’ they’re as foolish and credulous and easily manipulated as anyone. It’s a cynical frickin’ show, is what I’m saying. No one is good, and no one knows anything, and everyone’s out for themselves. Everywhere.
And it doesn’t feel all that untrue.
But it does feel a little untrue, and there’s where it offers a ray of hope. Iannucci’s sensibilities are those of Aristophanes, but Aristophanes did, at times, open up a space for reform. So far, Veep hasn’t opened up such a space, and that’s okay too. After all, satire just needs to be accurate enough to be funny, accurate enough to possibly lead to self-recognition and change. The moral center of the show resides in the audience, not the characters, but that’s a healthier place for it, is it not? We can do better. Maybe we can’t achieve West Wing levels of good governance. But we can do a few things maybe a little better than they’re being done right now. Let’s cling to that slender thread. And meanwhile, share a laugh at Selina and her not-very-merry band of nitwits.