Armando Iannucci’s characters, whether on his HBO series Veep, his BBC show The Thick of It, or that show’s film spin-off In the Loop, all share one common trait: a gift for inventive, ingenious insults and profanity. So while it’s not exactly a shock that Mr. Iannucci is such a cheerful, soft-spoken, and friendly chap, it is a bit of a relief; what’s surprising is that he insists, “I don’t swear myself!” In the worlds he’s writing about, “there is a fair amount of profanity but profanity can be quite dull.” With his characters, though, “we try and make it as interesting as possible so it’s not so much the swear words, it’s more the phrases around the swear words that make it more interesting.”
Veep returns to HBO for its second season Sunday night, and while its inaugural season was certainly funny and pointed, it seemed to take a few episodes to find its footing. That’s not the case this time; from its opening montage, a spot-on skewering of campaign trail platitudes, Veep’s second year is stronger, funnier, and sharper. “We certainly felt this time ’round that, you know, we were really picking up from where Season 1 ended,” Iannucci says, “and even from the first day of rehearsals all the cast were all bouncing off each other as if they hadn’t really been away.”
And with partisan gridlock at an event horizon, the show’s portrayal of a Washington in the throes of severe dysfunction couldn’t ring more true. Throughout its initial episodes, there are situations that recall recent political flashpoints: an unfortunately framed interview that echoes Sarah Palin’s turkey farm video, a daring mission and the viral photograph that follows, even a new Speaker of the House with a noticeably orange hue. Those real-life parallels contribute to an overall sense of authenticity, of political reality mated with comic exaggeration — but just barely.
That authenticity, Iannucci says, is also a result of time spent in the actual halls of power and with those who dwell in them. “I’m in DC an awful lot,” he says, “and I speak to people and I say, ‘Look, I’m not out to name names and it’s not a show about scandal or anything like that — I just want to get the facts right, and I want to know the boring stuff: What time do you get in in the morning? What time do you go home? What’s your office look like?’ And they’re perfectly happy to show us ‘round, you know, the vice president’s office was very welcoming and showed us ‘round so we could get it right.” And besides, he says, “I’m a little bit of a political nerd anyway, so I’ve been following American politics for decades. So I kind of feel I have the background knowledge, but it’s the finer details I’ve spent the last couple of years acquiring.”
The season’s most obvious parallel to the current political climate occurs in the season premiere, as the unnamed party of Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) takes a walloping in the mid-term election. But this development, Iannucci tells me, is less about commentary than character development; her popularity on the stump puts Selina in the position to ask for more responsibility, and get it, to her eventual chagrin. “She’s much more determined and has more of a sense of purpose,” he says, “and for that reason, we’ve decided with Season 2 to actually give her responsibility, to give her some power and then see how it affects her, you know, that thing of be careful what you wish for, what does it do to you when you do make decisions?” The sheer thanklessness of her increased responsibility is reliable comic fodder (offered a particularly vile public appearance opportunity, she responds, “Let’s see, I’d rather set fire to my vulva, so that’s a no“), but it also helps define the tricky balance of her character, who has to be comical but still credible, ineffective without being incompetent. “It is a comedy and comedy always involves an element of exaggeration or distortion,” he explains, “so it is trying to find that balance so that each week something funny happens but also not something that completely undermines [her].”
The other big question that Iannucci and his writers wanted to dig into this year was, as he puts it, “What does a life in politics do to you personally?” We get more of a sense of characters’ lives outside the office: Gary (Tony Hale) has a girlfriend, Mike (Matt Walsh) has gone deep into debt, and Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is dealing with a sick dad (“My mom said he was asking for me,” she assures her boss, “but my sister’s there…”). “I thought it would be good to see a little bit more of their private life without turning it into a soap opera,” Iannucci says, “so what I wanted to do was to see the private life but always as part of a story about how that private life is affected by what they’re doing during the day.”
And he wanted to give his first-rate ensemble cast more opportunities to shine. Many have backgrounds in improvisation, which helps give the tightly scripted show an off-the-cuff feel. In the writing stage, he says, “we spend a lot of time on the script, a lot of time plotting it moment by moment and really getting that sort of structure nailed down and the lines nailed down.” But once they’re in rehearsal and production, “it’s all about making it not look like it’s scripted and not look like it’s choreographed and rehearsed, so that’s all about encouraging the actors to loosen up the lines a bit, to talk over each other, to overlap, to come up with spontaneous reactions to things.” As a result, when it works, it’s as though “you’re just eavesdropping on something that’s been thought of and said at the same time. It’s like kind of sleight of hand in a way, just to try and arrive at the atmosphere that I’m after.”