Veep debuts tonight on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern.
HBO’s new political satire, Veep, is a show that doesn’t just improve with repeat viewings; it practically begs for them. Creator Armando Iannucci, the comic mastermind behind the excellent British series The Thick Of It, its quasi spin-off In The Loop, and the classic fake talk show Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, is known for his talky, densely packed scripts. His shows are not designed for passive viewing. Veep, starring the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, a senator-turned-vice president struggling with the limitations of her new job, is certainly no exception. Watching the show can occasionally feel like a mental workout, but the payoff is considerable, because Veep is both very funny and politically astute. It’s also that rarest of things: a show about DC with bipartisan appeal.
Despite superficial similarities between Selina Meyer and a certain polarizing vice-presidential candidate-cum-reality star, viewers who tune in to Veep expecting a thinly veiled Sarah Palin spoof will be disappointed (or maybe just relieved). Veep is not about any particular public figure, nor is it about any identifiable party. The president is never seen or even referred to by name, nor do we officially learn what party he and Selina belong to. Her support for green jobs and filibuster reform would suggest she’s a centrist Democrat, but Selina’s beliefs are largely beside the point in a show that’s more about process than policy. Given the intensely partisan climate in Washington these days, Veep’s non-ideological approach might seem like a cop-out, but in fact, it’s revelatory. In Iannucci’s version of American politics, self-preservation is more important than ideals, and damage control is at least as important as effective legislation.
In tonight's first episode, Selina finds herself managing three different crises at once. First, she inadvertently enrages the plastics industry with her campaign to install cornstarch utensils in government offices. Later, at a fundraiser she is attending on behalf of the president, Selina makes an impromptu crack about a “retard” on her staff. As she frantically tries to defuse both these situations, yet another crisis—involving a sympathy card for the widow of a lecherous senator nicknamed “Rapey Reeves”—emerges. At no point in the half-hour does anyone pause to discuss the merits of Selina’s green jobs proposal—much less deliver a stirring, Sorkin-esque speech. Instead, the vice president’s staffers focus on ingratiating themselves to their boss—and clashing with each other. What they do share, more than any single legislative goal, is a ridiculous case of myopia. In possibly the funniest line of the episode, press secretary Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh) tries to put a positive spin on Selina's “retard” gaffe by suggesting it could be overshadowed by bigger news. “What if Tom Hanks dies?” he says cheerfully. “There could be a forest fire in L.A.”
Selina has each of her underlings wrapped around her fingers in a slightly different way, and it’s difficult to tell who has the most power by proxy. Taciturn secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) is the gatekeeper who coolly dispatches unwanted visitors and makes sure no one barges in during one of the vice president’s therapeutic “spinning” sessions (not what it sounds like). Chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is hyper-competent but, like the assistant to a Hollywood agent, her identity is tied rather too closely to her boss—she even forges Selina’s signature for her. Then there’s “body man” Gary (Tony Hale, playing a slightly less socially awkward version of Buster Bluth) who is more obviously pathetic, but therefore probably harder to replace. In a quietly brilliant moment from the pilot episode, Gary obediently holds Selina’s scalding coffee while she tries, at length, to recall what she wanted to tell him. Iannucci rightfully gets a lot of attention for his artfully profane dialogue, but he’s also adept at capturing tiny, almost imperceptible gestures that reveal a tremendous amount about character.
Speaking of dialogue, fans of In The Loop and The Thick Of It will be happy to know that Veep has more than its fair share of inventive profanity and colorful insults (e.g. “weapons grade retard,” “fucking bitch bag”) —though some of it sounds less poetic without the benefit of Peter Capaldi’s Scottish brogue. At this early stage, there’s a slight lack of variation to the meanness: With the exception of dopey Gary, everyone flings the same type of vitriol at each other. It’s not that Veep should be nicer, but each character should have his or her own voice—and an arsenal of insults to match.
Iannucci is nothing if not an efficient humorist, cramming as many zingers as humanly possible into the show’s 28-minute running time. It’s easy to imagine a more accessible, less demanding version of Veep, watered down with some confessional interviews and a few conspicuous eye rolls—the mockumentary equivalent of a laugh track—but that’s not how Iannucci operates. If you don’t get the jokes, he’s not going to circle them in red ink for you.
Likewise, Iannucci isn’t one for coddling viewers with expository dialogue or establishing scenes. He treats the audience like interns on their first day on the Hill, throwing us into the action and expecting us to figure it out on our own. Selina’s backstory drips out slowly, detail by detail. By the end of the first episode, attentive viewers will know that she’s divorced with one child, and that her own presidential campaign was derailed by an unfortunate hat, but that’s about it. Lots of other questions—what kind of hat was it, for instance—remain. As a result, Veep improves as it goes along and the larger picture gradually comes into focus (the grade above applies to tonight’s episode only, though three episodes were sent out for review). Not that “Fundraiser” isn’t great, but it’s almost aggressively unaccommodating to the viewer.
Visually, Veep also does an admirable job at capturing the institutional squalor of Washington. Iannucci is not afraid to make a show that looks unsightly, without actually being ugly. Though Selina’s office has a certain grandeur, most other government spaces are bland and drab, cluttered with manila folders and single-cup coffee makers, with no natural light anywhere. Iannucci is interested in the more mundane aspects of these very powerful institutions, but the visuals also add to the show’s overall sense of claustrophobia.
At this point, the freakishly well-preserved Louis-Dreyfus is basically a national treasure, and Selina Meyer feels like a character worthy of her talents. She plays Selina with just the right mix of bitchiness and exasperation, frustration and tenacity. She comes across as a talented politician who has won the world's biggest consolation prize, and doesn't know what to do with it. Veep has already invited comparisons to The Office, a series that, in turn, owes a debt to Iannucci’s previous work, particularly Alan Partridge. All these shows thrive on the comedy of embarrassment, of course, but they also traffic in similar comedic archetypes. Jonah (Timothy Simons), the obsequious White House liaison who boasts of his close encounters with “POTUS,” is the show’s Dwight (or Gareth for you purists), and cocky Dan is reminiscent of Ryan. But the parallel doesn't go all the way to the top, because Selina is no Michael Scott—nor should she be. The joke of Veep isn’t that Washington bureaucrats are incompetent, idle, or even corrupt. It’s that they’ve lost all sense of perspective.