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TV Weekend: Veep

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Louis-Dreyfus and Hale, a heartbeat away from having actual power.

Selina Meyer was a big deal, once. She was an influential senator. She was on the covers of national magazines, including the one whose website you’re reading right now. She ran for President, won the New Hampshire primary and almost got the nomination. Instead, her opponent did, and she became his vice president.

Now she’s in charge of cornstarch. Marginalized by the White House, Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has to channel her passion for environmental issues into a campaign to replace plastic with cornstarch utensils in government buildings, one small project the distant, unseen POTUS permits her. Except when he doesn’t–as when she’s advised not to use the corn-cutlery at a fundraiser, so as not to anger the oil industry (plastics come from petroleum). “You can use celery,” an aide suggests, “as a kind of shovel.”

The unpleasant things people have to shovel in Washington when they don’t have enough power are the stuff of Veep, HBO’s new political comedy (debuting Sunday) from British satirist Armando Iannucci. Like his UK series The Thick of It and the spinoff movie In the Loop, Veep is filthy and funny, with a keen eye for humiliation–though its early episodes are too sitcommy and predictable in their targets to qualify as great satire. Still–after a week in which the political media debated dogs, Ted Nugent and whether Mitt Romney should have eaten a cookie–you can’t say a show about the triviality of politics doesn’t feel timely.

Iannucci’s British satire was about how the mighty abase themselves–how the pols in a minor UK minister’s office tried to get attention and respect for their department, as if they were the emissaries of a forgotten, powerless country. It depicted government as a collection of mini-fiefdoms, each of which was mostly devoted to raising the profile and media stature of a particular figure—a recurring theme also in Veep, in which Selina’s staff talk constantly about “relaunching” her or having her introduce “2-point-me.” The Thick of It was scathingly funny, almost poetic in its use of obscenity to show how the characters dealt with the pressure cooker of power, but it also had a note of sadness: success, in its political world, was a lonely, dispiriting business.

Veep, in the three episodes sent to critics, plays zanier, more snarky than sardonic. It’s largely a workplace comedy, not just about the frustrated Selina but her staff. Anna Chlumsky is especially winning as Selina’s loyal chief of staff Amy, a relatively decent operative who sees her place threatened by the devious Dan (Reid Scott), whom Selina hires because “He’s shitty me… I need a shit.”

Arrested Development’s Tony Hale is comfortingly twitchy as ever-present assistant Gary, a sort of walking Siri to whom Selina outsources her memory. Mike (Matt Walsh) is the press spokesman, a tired Washington lifer who’s hit his plateau and relies on stories of a fictitious dog to get him out of office late nights, antagonized by Jonah (Timothy C. Simons) a puffed-up White House staffer who uses his Pennsylvania Avenue credentials as a cudgel. Selina sometimes berates her people, and they often let her down, but they share a kind of trench-war, exhausted familiarity. “What would you say were the two biggest campaign mistakes that we made?” she asks Mike, in a moment of reflection. “You looked tired a lot,” he says without pausing, “and the hat.”

It’s a picture of the Vice Presidency as exile–the old idea of the office as a functionary job “not worth a bucket of warm shit.” (The old John Nance Garner quote is usually cleaned up these days to read “spit,” but Iannucci is not one for sanitizing political talk.) More-powerful recent VPs like Al Gore and Dick Cheney, and to a lesser extent Joe Biden, may make that image seem a little dated, but it’s understandable: it allows Iannucci to transpose a little bit of the dynamics of The Thick of It to America.

Still, the Vice Presidency is not the same as a British cabinet department, especially with the backstory Iannucci chose to give Selina. She’s not a party hack given the job to reward loyalty or to kick her upstairs–we’re meant to assume that she was a plausible threat to the President in the campaign (she apparently came much closer to the nomination than Biden did in 1988 or 2008) and a major political player. But Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina does little to indicate that: she mainly seems bumbling and overwhelmed. She must have has a gift for using power once, but we mostly see her flail at her staff to save her from herself. After one particularly bad  gaffe, she stammers at her underlings to bail her out: “I need you all to make me have not said that. I need you to make me un-said it.”

It’s actually a really funny line! And Louis-Dreyfus delivers it beautifully. But it, and her sitcommy (though expertly sitcommy) performance does not fit the character, the situation or the larger satire. (She’s great in the right role, but her delivery here feels very much like Elaine on Seinfeld; unlike with, say, Kelsey Grammer on Boss, I never forgot who I was watching in Veep.) The way the premise is set up, we have to see Selina at least as a plausible President—someone who, at least once upon a time, had power, potential and respect—but early on she seems far less politically and personally competent than Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope.

Of course, Leslie Knope was also a caricature in Parks’ first episodes, and she and the show matured into one of TV’s best comedies. And there’s a lot to like in Veep. Iannucci’s larger vision of power and how it works is an interesting pairing with the dark vision of power on Game of Thrones: to him, politics is the art of humiliation and indignity, DC a city full of people who ask you how you’re doing and do not care about the answer.

Veep’s characters are most interesting when they are faking, which is much of the time, as when Selina has to pay tribute to a sexual-harassing senator, nicknamed “Rapey Reeves,” who welcomed her to the senate by grabbing her boob. And it has a great ear for the trivialities of modern politics: Selina’s plan to buy a dog is even nixed because it conflicts with the First Family’s planned acquisition of the First Dog “or FDOTUS.” You can’t exactly argue the verisimilitude of a political dog controversy this week.

(As for the show’s ideology—there’s not really much of one. If I had to guess, I’d say Selina’s a Democrat, on the basis of her environmental focus and hints about her legislative past from politicians she talks to. But that’s all incidental here, anyway: Veep is almost all politics and almost no political issues.)

Many of Veep’s early storylines, though, are wackily broad (a subplot about a stomach-flu outbreak that’s ends up, scatologically, pretty much where you’d guess) or reflexively cynical (pols are vain, phony, self-interested, &c). That last is a hard criticism to make, because there’s pretty much no picture of Washington so bleak that people won’t accept it. And who can blame them?

But the fact that Veep’s jaundice is plausible doesn’t make it original, which is the mark of HBO’s best series–the ability to take a familiar setting or genre and offer a surprising insight on it. (If you’re doing an ambitious show about the Vice Presidency, you should have enough fresh material not to go right away to a the-President-might-be-incapacitated storyline.) Veep doesn’t do that, though it’s still an acerbically entertaining show that I’ll keep watching for now because of the strong cast, because of its gift for the obscene bon mot (a Selina speech edited for political concerns by the White House is said to be “pencil-fucked”), and because I hope it will grow into something more distinctive.

I’m not so naive as to expect Washington to change for the better. But I’m still idealistic enough to believe that TV can.