Veep and the Absurdities of Power
With the exception of Al Gore, the office of the Vice President has recently become a fertile ground for comedy, mostly because of the characters involved. Dan Quayle was comically stupid, Dick Cheney was comically evil, and, if The Onion is to be believed, Joe Biden is just a guy looking for a good time. The funny thing is that these qualities are pretty terrifying if they ever become attached to the responsibilities of the President, which of course is a very real possibility (one could argue that George W. Bush was a mixture of all three).
There’s a moment in Veep — a brilliant new HBO series by Armando Iannucci — where the Vice President turns on a dime from indignation at not being let into a meeting to barely suppressed giddiness after being informed why: the President is experiencing chest pains and she needs to get to the Situation Room immediately. This is one of the Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ many fine moments in the role of Selena Meyers. Yet when the VP is prepped on her duties a real sense of disquiet comes over the viewer… neither she nor her staffers seem to have much confidence that she knows what she is doing. There’s a palpable sense of relief all around when we learn that the President was just experiencing a bit of heartburn. She can thankfully return to her political backwater in the Vice President’s office, and we can continue to laugh at the excesses of Washington.
The genius behind Armando Iannucci’s new show is that these sobering moments don’t arrest the comedy, but rather add to it. As we head into this year’s presidential election there’s a palpable sense that our political culture has become deeply dysfunctional, so politics produces its own supplement to help us understand events. Either you go down the populist route and assume that political discourse masks a more sinister intention (creeping socialism for Tea Partiers, corporate welfare for Occupiers), or you can take the cynical view that these inane discussions basically get things right and politicians are more interested in their own careers than in the public good. Veep skews more towards the latter, but Iannucci is always quick to remind us of the practical effects of vanity, careerism, and desperate public relations. When informed of a victory in advancing her Clean Jobs Initiative, Vice President Meyers remarks, “That’s great for me.” She is quickly corrected with “and for the country,” to which she adds, “yeah, that’s what I meant.”
Veep is the third in a series of explicitly political works of satire for Iannucci, beginning with the British television series The Thick of It and continuing with the critically acclaimed film In the Loop. In all three projects the target is a political culture that’s grown increasingly shortsighted, narcissistic, and to the delight of the viewer, self-consciously vulgar (a redacted speech has been “pencil fucked,” a staffers’ attempt to pick up a girl at a funeral has been shut down by a “cock blocking widow”). In Veep Julia Louis-Dreyfus is joined by fantastic turns from Anna Chlumsky (her chief of staff), Tony Hale (her hovering, Buster Bluth-like personal aide), Matt Walsh (her sweaty director of communications), and Timothy Simons (a exceptionally awkward and predatory White House staffer). Everyone is remarkably media conscious and terribly gaffe prone, which again captures the idea that politicians’ actions have consequences, just not where they imagine. We get an intimation of this in the first episode, where much of the action is set in motion by VP Meyer’s push to get corn starch utensils into all federal buildings (a “legacy project” she quickly compromises on because of political pressures from the Plastics industry, not because the spoons bend in cups of hot coffee).
This recent political turn is a bit of a departure for Armando Iannucci, despite his long involvement in public life as a political columnist for the British journal The Observer. His first target was the media, which he and Chris Morris brilliantly subverted in their television series The Day Today. There the idea was to master the form to such an extent that you could demonstrate its absurdities from within. However, with shows like I’m Alan Partridge he became more interested in the effects that the media worked on its protagonists’ character. This proved a natural bridge to a satire of politics, so that the neuroses of the people we meet in Veep are simultaneously expressions of the institutions in which they operate. For the Washington staffers of Veep this is a very competitive world in which it is acceptable to use shorthand like “POTUS,” “FLOTUS,” and “FDOTUS” (First Dog), which is to say a very strange and insular environment.
One of the most impressive and satisfying elements of In the Loop was Iannucci’s effortlessness in capturing both the parochialism of British politicians and the overtly strategic behavior of their American counterparts. An eight-episode season concentrating on the American political scene is no doubt more difficult, and Iannucci and co-producer/writer Simon Blackwell benefit greatly from the insider knowledge of fellow producer Frank Rich and the performances of the cast (Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the subject of a glowing New York Times Magazine piece in which she talks about her formative experiences as a Washington child. The performances of Matt Walsh and Tony Hale deserve special praise for slowing down the hyperactive dialogue of politicos so that we can absorb the absurdity of what is being said.
Returning to the opening question, why has the Vice President become a figure that is so ripe for comedy? Or why does such a debased culture capture our attention and ultimately make us laugh? One answer Veep ventures is that there is something undeniably reassuring in being reminded that politics is ultimately a human affair, and the day to day consequences of political decisions are not as catastrophic as they are often made out to be.The figure of the Vice President — at the ready, but without much to do in the meantime — is a perfect medium to drive home this point. Veep reminds us that we might as well have a little fun while we wait.
Michael Schapira is an occasional teacher and writer.