What does a vice president do, anyway? Oh, sure, he’s first in line to lead the free world if the president drops dead or is otherwise incapacitated, and reportedly pursues some policy initiatives of his own. But what is Joe Biden actually doing all day — sitting in a big, comfy desk chair making politically incorrect jokes? How did Dan Quayle spend his time at work? If you told me he mostly watched Murphy Brown reruns while shaking his fist at the TV, I wouldn’t be that surprised. My understanding of Dick Cheney’s legacy is that he split his attention between hunting trips, awarding government contracts to shadowy corporations run by his cronies, and shooting poisonous glares at liberals. In fact, we bet your average American would have a hard time imagining what a day in the life of even our cannier VPs — Al Gore, George H.W. Bush — looked like.
HBO’s Veep, which premieres Sunday night at 10, is premised on that ignorance. Created by Armando Ianucci, the British writer/director/producer best known in America for his excellent 2009 film In the Loop, a satire of American and UK politics surrounding the invasion of Iraq, it stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer. Flanked by a motley staff — Tony Hale’s goofy body guard, Matt Walsh’s harried communications guy, Reid Scott’s well-connected schemer, and Anna Chlumsky as the snippy but smart chief of staff — she spends her days presiding over an office that’s constantly in a panic, generally for no good reason.
Less a political comedy than a workplace sitcom, Veep doesn’t seem particularly interested in showing us its characters’ lives outside of work. The first episode begins by dumping us headfirst into the daily grind, providing almost no insight into anyone’s personal background. Instead, the show maintains a claustrophobic focus on the vice president’s office, throwing into relief how petty the staff’s concerns are and highlighting how much time they spend on tiny details — retrieving an incorrectly signed birthday card, planning an official visit to a frozen yogurt shop — versus real political issues. Even the scenes that deal with Selina’s policy initiatives are more about the colorfully nasty personalities involved than the issues at hand. Along with Ianucci’s signature fast-paced, foulmouthed dialogue (think Aaron Sorkin meets Deadwood) and the talented cast, this obsession with minutiae is what makes the show consistently funny.
While it’s entertaining enough so far that I plan to keep watching, Veep does have one major problem that is only going to get bigger unless it’s addressed: its protagonist. HBO’s press notes introduce Selina as “a rising star in her party, a charismatic leader who seemed to have unlimited potential” and had been pegged as a promising presidential candidate before sinking to the apparently degrading position of VP. But we see none of this charisma or potential in the character, who bungles her way through speeches and receptions and meetings like a combination of Michael Scott and Liz Lemon, with none of Leslie Knope’s redeeming sweetness. Now, Ianucci is known for his portraits of spiky, narcissistic politicians (in addition to In the Loop, he created the BBC British government satire The Thick of It), so it doesn’t surprise me that Selina is somewhat unlikable. What throws the show out of the realm of believability is how little she has to offer as a whole. The vice president doesn’t need to be intelligent, magnetic, principled, savvy and well-connected, but to become the second most powerful figure in American politics (at least on paper), Selina should be at least one of those things.
What separates Veep from other shows set in the White House — most notably The West Wing — is that Ianucci is less interested in exploring actual issues than exposing politicians as the crude, selfish, small-minded bureaucrats that many of them likely are. In a recent Daily Show interview, Louis-Dreyfus told Jon Stewart that we’ll never find out whether Selina is a Republican or Democrat. That’s fine with me, but there’s still something missing. There’s a reason the self-important careerists we elect to represent us are senators and vice presidents, not middle managers at paper companies in Pennsylvania. If Veep fails to shed any light on what makes us trust these people with our future, then it’s never going to fully succeed as satire.
Photo credits: Bill Gray/HBO