Veep's Much Improved Trash-Talking Minuet

The second season of Veep kicks off on Sunday with a very entertaining montage of Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) on the campaign trail. She's delivering a clunker of a stump speech—"Freedom isn't 'Me-dom.' It's 'We-dom'!"—that climaxes with a peachy parody of the Anecdotal American our pols so love to describe encountering when being out on the hustings pokes a hole in their bubble. Yes, it's midterm-elections time.

Selina's efforts don't stop the White House from going into meltdown mode once its Congressional majority heads into the dumpster. But she's done well enough at stanching the hemorrhage to try parlaying her success into more clout inside the administration. That puts her at loggerheads with a new nemesis: Gary Cole as hired-gun polling guru Kent Davidson, brought in to cynically shore things up à la Dick Morris after Bill Clinton's 1994 midterm drubbing.

Cole is one reason this is a new and improved Veep. Starting with gaffe-prone, ambition-addled Selina herself, the first season of In The Loop cutups Armando Ianucci and Simon Blackwell's Beltway sendup over-milked the reductiveness of making nearly everybody in sight a fatuous go-getter and/or a bumbling sad sack. The only exceptions—Anna Chlumsky as Amy, Selina's overstressed chief of staff, and Sufe Bradshaw as Sue, her appointments secretary—were mostly stuck doing damage control.

Kent Davidson, on the other hand, is something new in Veep's world. Namely, a big-league pro who's actually good at his job, like the other major new character we're introduced to, jaded White House Chief of Staff Ben Caffrey (Kevin Dunn). Partly because Selina now has to compete at their level, she's been satisfyingly reconceived as less of a flibbertigibbet and more of a plausibly knowledgeable, sharp-elbowed D.C. mover and shaker. That ends up adding more tartness as well as depth to the jokes.

If that means I'm a convert, worse things have happened. Veep's debut season left me doting more on the show's ace cast and rapid-fire insult humor than I did on the premise, which struck me as I Love Lucy gone Washington in a dubiously retrograde way. True, Dreyfus didn't actually bawl "Waaah!" whenever Selina's latest plan to win some respect got stymied, the way Lucy Ricardo did when another of her get-rich-or-famous-quick schemes blew up in her face as Ricky and Fred chortled. But the effect was remarkably similar.

The old Washingtonian in me was nearly as irritated at how breezily the show palmed off generic showbiz satire— Selina-plus-staff equaling star-plus-entourage, just gussied up in convenient Potomac drag—as insider savvy. Too often, its creators not only didn't seem to have done their homework well enough to burlesque D.C.'s indigenous mores with any accuracy. They didn't seem to think ignorance made any difference so long as the effect was belittling.

While it might be tempting to ascribe this failing to Ianucci and Blackwell's being a couple of slumming furriners, plenty of homegrown political satire is every bit as slovenly. Since time immemorial, ridicule of Washington's ways has never needed to be informed to gratify most Americans outside the Beltway. But Veep has gotten better at this stuff. When Selina, on a visit to Quantico, frets that she isn't being saluted—and then has it explained to her that Marines don't salute indoors—you can practically picture the writers high-fiving at the ostentatious proof that they've learned to bone up.

All the same, any illusion of authenticity now paradoxically matters less. That's because our deepening affection for this bunch of secretly forlorn grotesques has turned Veep's backbiting, tempests-in-teapots version of D.C. into a realm we're happy to visit for its own sake. The series no longer has to be in the business of scoring points against the "real" Washington—or saying anything about it all, really—for us to accept it as a half-plausible, half pleasingly-fanciful world unto itself.

That, you may notice, is a description of a very old-school kind of sitcom: the ingratiating kind pre-millenials grew up on, in which intimacy with the characters ended up trumping whatever point was originally being made about either them or their milieu. It's not as if we dug Frasier for its cutting look at how Seattle or talk radio worked, you know?

Under Ianucci and Blackwell's ever more confidently orchestrated profusion of jockeying, abrasive careerists and gaga only-in-Washington incidents, not to mention the intricately foul-mouthed dialogue—never have dick jokes and obsessive anality sounded so impressively like a tribal and/or professional dialect—that's the kind of show Veep is turning into. I think it's become less flimsy and more rewarding as a result.

Good as the cast was from the get-go, now they're at the stage where they're so on top of their own characters and each other's timing—and yet still fresh enough that they aren't bored witless with reprising the same behavioral tics over and over—that it's just minuet after one-upping, trash-talking minuet. But one hint that Ianucci and Blackwell are getting fonder of their characters is that they're more prone to ending on the target's wounded reaction shot. In one way or another, from The Honeymooners to The Simpsons, every great sitcom has always been about losers. Whatever their ostensible setting, that's always been their peculiar claim to realism.

Dreyfus benefits most from Veep's increased depth. After all, it's built into Veep's premise that she'll never be the top dog. Skilled as she is at chatterbox fatuity, I've never liked her better than I do now that Selina Meyer is getting to show us her genuine braininess as well as her conscience's moments of rue. One upcoming episode features a running gag about her ordering her minions to keep both legs in sight at all times after she learns that a hostage rescue she used to showcase her ability to make command decisions cost some poor grunt one of his. It's funny, but also a much more complicated and surreptitiously heartfelt joke than we're used to from this series.

Though she's already won her damned Emmy for Veep, Dreyfus may only be starting to earn it. Given how showboatingly cynical the series was at the start, it must astound this gifted but never too lovable actress to realize she could be playing the most beloved vice president in American history—in other words, the only one anybody, me included, has ever even liked. Leaving out Aaron Burr, of course.

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