Veep subscribes to the old saw attributed to French playwright Jean Giraudoux: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The mystery of the series is whether there’s any real sincerity behind Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character of Vice President Selina Meyer.
We know that Selina is not great at schmoozing and small talk (in this episode, she gives a spectacularly I-don’t-give-a-shit tour of the vice president’s residence), but it’s unclear whether that’s because she’s in over her head or because she’s bored with the superficial nature of politics. I don’t remember any scene in which she lets down her guard and talks with any passion about her political beliefs; it’s only Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that hints at the idea that Selina once had causes other than the accumulation of power for power’s sake.
I’m cheating a little here in that I’ve already seen next week’s episode, in which Selina does something that really underlines the question of just what makes her tick. But Veep’s whole second season has been zeroing in on the question of what would happen if circumstances were to “let Selina be Selina,” to borrow the phrase associated with The West Wing.
But before next week’s plot-heavy installment, “First Response” is the closest the series has come to a bottle episode, stranding the principal characters in the vice president’s residence to watch Selina try to get through a rocky interview for the TV news program First Response with Janet Ryland — described by Dan in last week’s episode as “respected but not dangerous” while Amy reacts with horror at the idea of letting her get near the veep. Perhaps Amy knew that Janet would be played by Allison Janney, an inspired if inevitable bit of casting, given that Janney’s big break was as presidential press secretary on The West Wing.
Selina is able to end the interview on a triumphant note, coming up with a perfect sound bite by apologizing for making deceptive statements during a hostage crisis and then declaring, “In politics, a backbone and a heart are only as good as your ears. And my ears are my livelihood.” The striking thing about her little speech is that its content is really no better than Selina’s cringingly terrible small talk, often featured in Veep’s scenes of cocktail parties, Senate swearing-in ceremonies, and the like. Just add some pauses and stammers and you’ve got a nonsensical disaster. But because Selina gets through the platitudes with conviction, she’s seen as having taken control of the interview.
The irony is that Selina’s apology is the lie, since she was completely unaware that she was deceiving anyone during the hostage crisis (having been kept out of the loop and never informed that one of the hostages was an American spy). Her fake sincerity, and success at pulling it off, is part of her declaration of independence from the never-seen president.
Before we get to that point, there’s the summit meeting between comic pros Louis-Dreyfus and Janney, along with variations on an old sitcom standby, the ambush interview — which Janet’s producer describes as going from “bluff puff” to “rough puff.” (For a classic example, see the “Who Is Mr. X?” episode of The Bob Newhart Show, in which Bob is attacked as a fraud on an early-morning talk show). “Drag her in with the kindness, then turn great white and start taking chunks out of her,” says the producer, to which Janet sneers, “She’s not much of a meal.”
Janney gets Janet’s schtick of seemingly inadvertent condescension down pat. When Selina unwisely boasts about her (unsuccessful) attempts to avoid a government shutdown, the taller Janet looks down on the veep, with clasped hands and a huge smile, to ask, “Do you think you could have worked a little harder on that?” This is followed by a fake nervous chuckle.
The ambush part of the interview involves an e-mail sent that Selina’s ex-husband, Andrew, sent to a lobbyist in which he not-too-subtly promises access to the vice president. Fortunately, Janet doesn’t even know the bigger story, which is that Andrew and Selina are regularly hooking up in the vice president’s residence. (“When I invited you here to the White House to fuck me, I did not mean this,” hisses Selina.)
While Selina struggles to regain her balance in front of the camera, the mutiny on her staff mounts. We already know that opportunistic Dan is looking to bolt to a politician with a more promising future. In “First Response,” normally cool Amy loses it over the unexpectedly tough questions, lashing into Janet’s producer and causing him to snap back, “Have you ever seen television news before?” During a segment in which Selina, Andrew, and daughter Catherine are shown preparing a meal, Gary is incredulous that the veep has forgotten that her daughter is a vegetarian. He gets her attention with a handwritten sign — “She told you 3 months ago!” in all capital letters — that the deferential aide would not (as yet) dare to read aloud to her.
Selina seems unaware of all this, but Louis-Dreyfus makes her character seem more and more disgusted with all the bullshit she has to sling. “I just love banging pots around,” she says to Janet as a claim that she likes to cook her own meals, and this might be the most insincere delivery of a line on Veep to date. Does Selina think she’s fooling people, or does she just not care? And is there anyone in her life who knows the answer?
- A moment right out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary: Selina picking things up off her desk and trying to say something interesting about them, ending with a half-assed “This is a bell.” (Ding!) Maybe Selina can do a cross-over on Guest’s Family Tree, which airs right after Veep on HBO.
- After the way Andrew belittles her on camera, could anyone object if Selina exercised her vice presidential prerogative and gave a signal to the Secret Service to shoot him in the kneecaps?
- Jonah doesn’t have much screen time this episode, but he makes a loud, intrusive-neighbor-type entrance in the middle of the interview. Mindful of the cameras, Amy greets Jonah with “Howdy, handsome, how are you?” in a strangled drawl. Jonah takes advantage of the cameras to hug Catherine far too tightly and far too long.
- As press secretary, Mike’s shining moment in this episode comes when he tries to convince Janet that Selina’s earlier attempt to avoid a government shutdown is what ultimately led to the end of the government shutdown: “Janet, it’s like when you loosen a pickle jar, and someone comes by, and they just open it. [Selina] is the shutdown lid-loosener.” Can Mike (the effectively understated Matt Walsh) not be aware that “I loosened it” is a sarcastic expression?