A Heartbeat Away
It’s often been said that politics is a boys’ club. So, too, is television production (even if a few top jobs have recently been held by women). Veep breaks through another sort of glass ceiling, with comedy that doesn’t center on yet another buffoonish man supported by a woman the straight role.
Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) doesn’t play much of anything straight. Neither is she cutesy, quirky or klutzy, like so many women in current sitcoms. She’s not a Type-A personality with one manageable flaw that makes her all the more adorable. In the premiere of Veep, she’s also not lovelorn, lamenting her singlehood or swooning over men.
Instead, Meyer is nakedly and selfishly ambitious, rude to and about her staff, foul-mouthed, and lacking the political know-how and personality traits that make an effective leader, manager or executive. All this puts her more in line with the male characters who drive long-running TV comedies, like The Office’s Michael Scott, or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David.
Louis-Dreyfus showcases Meyer’s multiple edges while still inspiring empathy for her plight. At a recent in-person appearance in New York City to promote the show, Louis-Dreyfus called the character a “thwarted person.” It’s clear that Meyer believes she deserves the Oval Office, and yet she can barely stay afloat in her position, which is both powerful and yet powerless. Even as you watch her struggle to keep up with having no real responsibilities, you can’t help but feel a twinge of compassion whenever she asks, “Did the president call?” The answer is always no.
Louis-Dreyfus can do much with just a facial expression and hand wave. In the premiere, while approving a plan to avert a potential PR disaster, she turns to her chief of staff (Amy, played by Anna Chlumsky), and says, “Can you come up with a Plan B, because…” then generally gestures to the entire office. With just that half-thought, you completely understand her frustrations. It’s further testament to Louis-Dreyfus’ skill that she does this while in no way recalling Elaine.
Of course, it’s not only Louis-Dreyfus’ show (though she is a producer). The creative team behind it includes Armando Iannucci. Though Veep, his movie, In the Loop, and his BBC show The Thick of It, all concern themselves with the business of politics, they don’t satirize current events or ideas. (Meyer’s political party is never revealed.) You’ll recognize types, but no specific personalities among the characters. Meyer isn’t Sarah Palin, and neither is she Hillary Clinton. Meyer has her own problems: in the premiere, she stumps for getting utensils made of cornstarch into government buildings.
Veep is more attentive to the day-to-day goings on in the administration, the office politics. “I don’t have time to ignore you right now,” Amy tells White House liaison Jonah (Timothy Simons), “Gary, can you please ignore Jonah for me?” Indeed, much of the premiere is devoted to the ways the staff members are out to get each other, and who is using whom. You get the feeling they’re not going to find friendship and achieve lofty goals, but it’s funny watching the ways they screw each other over.
In its focus on such details, the show finds humor in the contradiction between the staff’s renowned arena and the petty ways they get things done. Dressed in perfectly prim, triangulated politician garb while cursing out her staff for their bumbling ineptitude, Meyer is consistently small-minded and strangely sharp. “Glasses make me look weak,” she says. “They’re like a wheelchair for the eyes.”
At the event in New York, Louis-Dreyfus noted that most films and TV shows portray politics as noble, like The West Wing, or sinister, like Three Days of the Condor. With Veep, politics is drudgery. It’s bureaucracy and backstabbing in small, cramped spaces. They might as well be running a paper company.