In a country that is all about being Number 1, Veep takes us into the world of the most famous Number 2, the Vice President of the United States of America. We meet VP Selina Meyer, and learn that the woman who is one heartbeat away from being the most powerful person on the planet actually has very little power in the Washington machine. Her time is spent trying to keep herself relevant, while recovering from mistakes she and her staff continually make.
The heart of the show is the VP’s office and the characters and relationships within it. Selina and her Chief of Staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) share a special bond as two women in a male-dominated world, but that doesn’t stop Selina from making Amy pay when things go wrong (Selina scolds her: “It’s your job to know that if I say I have it covered, I don’t have it covered and you cover me”). Also dropping the ball is Head of Communications Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh), who has lost his brilliance, thanks to the changing world of social media. Competing for the “Most Important to the VP” role are her Diary Scheduler Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw) and Personal Aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) who, as Selina’s “body man”, is never far from her side — to provide excuses for her to leave conversations, carry anything and everything she might need, and stroke her ego whenever it is dented (which is often).
New boy Dan Egan has just been hired to rejuvenate the office; unfortunately, his blatant ambition guides both his personal and professional lives, which leads to poor choices and unpleasant consequences. Providing the link between Selina’s office and the White House is Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), essentially a little boy who can’t believe his luck: he answers his phone “West Wing” even when he’s not at work, and sees himself as quite powerful (though he’s only interested in using that “power” to get women). He revels in bringing Selina bad news from the POTUS (and if you don’t already hate that acronym, Jonah’s obnoxious glee at using it will ensure that you quickly do).
In The Making of Veep, a short documentary included in the package, Julia Louis-Dreyfus claimed that Veep “is a show about political behavior, not a show about being a woman in politics.” This is true: although some of what Selina has to deal with is based on her gender, most of it is just about the politics of Washington. It’s a funny show, but it’s also cynical, so while you’re laughing at the dirty dealings and incompetence, there’s also space to weep or rage, as well. The characters’ ability to turn off emotions, to care only about themselves (despite the fact that they work for “the people”) and to compromise their beliefs show us a Washington TV rarely does (and, as the commentaries reveal, one that is often based on truth, as the results of the writers’ research inspired many scenes and characters).
Fans of the show’s creator, Armando Iannucci, won’t be surprised by this harsh but humorous look at politics, as Iannucci is well known in his native Britain for satire of all shades, including his BAFTA-winning series The Thick of It, a behind-the-scenes look at British politics. He bridged the Atlantic with his sharp film In The Loop, which brought British politicians to Washington, so it was a relief to see that he wasn’t forced to tone things down when he focused on American politics in Veep.
With Iannucci came other British writers (such as Simon Blackwell, Will Smith, and Jesse Armstrong) and directors (king of British satire, Christopher Morris, directed one episode). Iannucci also brought his improvisational technique to this show and said that, in casting, the ability to improvise was one of the talents they were looking for.
Overall, the casting works well; the success of the acting really is down to the ensemble rather than relying only on the star. That’s not to say that Louis-Dreyfus isn’t good; she balances the complexities of her character wonderfully, although I will admit that it took a few episodes for me to buy her as the vice-president. Anna Chlumsky, who worked with Iannucci on In the Loop, succeeds in her role as Chief of Staff — her character is sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, but imperfect, and Chlumsky gives her a sense of dignity even when she falters.
Reid Scott manages to add some dimension to Dan: we know he’s an asshole (Selina tells Amy when she hires Dan: “You sold him to me as a shit, that’s why I hired him, he’s shitty me, and I need a shit”), but we too get seduced by his good looks and charm. Most sympathetic, though, are Mike and Gary, whose sincerity is most believable, thanks to Matt Walsh’s and Tony Hale’s portrayals. Both can reach the audience (and make us laugh) with little remarks and brilliant facial expressions.
Both the writing and the direction throughout the series are strong. The look of the show — shot loosely with two handheld cameras — makes us feel as if we are seeing things we shouldn’t be seeing, and the sets provide a realistic peek at the shabby chaos behind the capital’s beautiful landscape and architecture. The storylines of the season build slowly, though, which means that initially the first few episodes seem less strong, as the audience is getting to know the characters and the rules of the game they’re playing. As Selina grows her “ladyballs”, she becomes more of a force, and less of a gaffe-prone Vice President caricature.
While the plots grow in complexity, they are balanced with seemingly simple exchanges. The climax of the “Baseball” episode comes at the end and is revealed with few words as Gary leans in to whisper something into Selina’s ear, and it’s a powerful moment, which is a testament to both the writers’ construction of the story arc and the actors’ performances.
The show has received mostly positive reviews and numerous award nominations for acting, writing, and directing. One criticism some have made is about its use of rough language. I wonder if some of the issue is due to the initial surprise of hearing naughty words coming out of the mouth of Elaine Benes (whom Louis-Dreyfus will always be, to so many of us). But the language is part of the world we’re observing; it gives an authenticity to the players’ voices.
Veep is one of those shows where we’re not sure which of the characters we’d actually like, because despite their each having likeable characteristics, they do and say deplorable things. Yet the show’s writing and acting make us care about what happens to them, especially since, after all, what happens in Washington affects everyone.
A Blu-ray/DVD Combo+Digital Copy, Veep: The Complete First Season comes with a good range of bonus features, though sadly not any real outtakes (I am leading a one-woman campaign to make bloopers mandatory). Fans of commentary will have their dedication satisfied (or tested) as the first four episodes have two commentary tracks each: one, which feels more like the “grown-ups'” commentary, with crew members including Iannucci and Louis-Dreyfus (she is also a producer); and the other when the “kids” (the actors) are allowed to speak freely. To be honest, the separate commentaries aren’t totally necessary — many of the same “insider insights” are shared on both, but I suppose it’s nice to give viewers a chance to hear from everyone. The last four episodes’ commentaries are a combination of production and performers (Iannucci, Blackwell, Louis-Dreyfus, Chlumsky, Simons, and Walsh) and are more banter-ish with everyone making themselves and each other laugh.
In addition to The Making of Veep, there are deleted scenes from each episode and two of the Vice President’s public announcements. “Misspoke” (in a nod to Hilary Clinton) has Selina offering as close to a public apology as a politician can get, and “Obesity” is her Public Service Announcement for the campaign the President has dumped on her (there are also “outtakes” for each announcement where Selina’s true feelings are revealed). I don’t want to dwell on the lack of bloopers, but so much of this show is improvised and the commentaries mention many corpsing disasters that including some of those scenes would have been the cherry on top for these bonus features.
HBO offers a nice package with its Veep: The Complete First Season release. The show does take time to build, but by the later episodes, the investment is worthwhile as viewers are pulled into the action and characters’ development. The bonus features complement nicely, providing additional laughs as well as useful background information. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it should be required viewing for all students of American government, it does provide us with a less glamorous but probably more brutally honest look at the machinations of politics and the lack of control the people who control the country actually have.