Show: Veep (HBO)
Type: Comedy, single camera
One line description: Selina Meyer is Vice President of the United States. She is constantly frustrated by her lack of authority.
Tone: Cynical, acidic, fast paced
Similar to: The Thick of It (British forerunner), Curb Your Enthusiasm (structure of building problems overlapping and frustrated central character)
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale (Arrested Development), Anna Chlumsky
Quality: Good (50-70 range)
Veep is written by Brit Armando Iannucci and is a very similar construction to The Thick of It. Vice President Selina is desperate to be politically relevant but instead stumbles from one gaffe to another while her staff all jockey for position and insult one another. The satire is clear and direct: Selina doesn’t care about ideology, she only cares about herself and those around her just want better jobs. I didn’t watch a huge amount of The Thick of It but I found the endless arguments a bit tiresome.
Before I get to my complaints I should point out the good things about Veep, of which there are many. The plots are well constructed and function just like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Selina wants to achieve A but the President or some other forces squashes her plans and she has to scramble to avoid disaster. The performances are good too. Louis-Dreyfus is very experienced at smiling through a nightmare as is Tony Hale who plays a more accomplished version of Buster. The supporting players all do fine and the scenarios the writers come up with are all pretty solid. Selina is either battling over something dull like filibuster reform or briefly being whisked into the corridors of real power when the President experiences chest pains.
My two major complaints about Veep are entwined. It’s taken me many years to just accept that Curb Your Enthusiasm exists in this special world where Larry David never changes and you just laugh at his various machinations. I find that reality harder to accept with Veep. I don’t have Iannucci’s relentlessly cynical viewpoint. I think politicians on both sides of the Atlantic struggle with many problems and I have trouble imaging them all as bitter careerists who care about nothing except surviving till tomorrow.
I wouldn’t mind seeing some characters trapped in that mindset but when everyone (except for Hale’s Gary) is it becomes dull. I thought the third episode was a big mistake as we meet Selina’s daughter Catherine. Instead of seeing the lighter side of Selina she became an inhuman character who had no time or attention for her own child and could barely relate or talk to her. This drained the show of any potential for Selina to be a tragic figure. Now it’s clear that she is just a cipher for satire rather than actual character.
For me the comedy doesn’t work either. I have no problem believing that people in politics yell and swear at one another when the you know what hits the fan. However the witty acidic banter that characters on Veep just roll out with every exhale doesn’t feel real. Anyone who has spent time in a group of people knows that not everyone can be witty. Not everyone can come up with clever insults. And anyone who understands comedy knows that if everyone does something then it loses its value.
Again Selina’s daughter Catherine provides the best example of this phenomenon. She is portrayed for most of the episode as a proper outsider. She is polite and is a bit shocked at how little attention she is paid by these work obsessed people. She encounters White House sleaze Jonah who hits on her and is rebuffed. Soon after she refers to him as looking like a composite sketch of a rapist. It’s a typically witty and creative description for his character. BUT – she would never have said that. It was totally out of character for her to a) come up with a comment like that or b) to be so rude. The writers just couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t let the chance to be clever go instead of writing for the character.
Just because Veep is a clever show, written by a clever man, doesn’t mean it is good. If you like politics and a mean insult then you will probably enjoy this. However if you want real characters and real laughs I don’t think this works.