Brought to us by The Thick of It and In The Loop creator Armando Ianucci and starring Julia-Louis Dreyfus as ditzy, vainglorious Vice President Selina Meyer, Veep, which premieres Sunday, is HBO's bid to break TV's long-standing jinx on shows about politics. And ... jinx, you ask? Hey, bub, what about The West Wing?
That's just it. The hat trick of The West Wing—which was at its worst and least convincing, you may recall, when obliged to gingerly dramatize Jed Bartlet's re-election campaign—was that it wasn't about politics at all. Certainly not in that greasy-pole way Disraeli told us about and that Robert A. Caro, whatever his frighteningly humorless virtues, fails to enjoy.
With nary a sleazy careerist in sight (power for power's sake, ugh) The West Wing was about governance, something altogether loftier and more selfless in Aaron Sorkin's civics-infatuated imagination. Despite its argot-happy, hallway-trotting D.C. trappings, the series was basically a high-minded medical drama with the United States as the obtuse patient. No wonder it spent years neck and neck with ER.
So it could be good news for HBO that Veep isn't really about politics either. Flogging the series on The Daily Show, Dreyfus made it sound like an asset that you never learn which party her character belongs to—and, well, no. That's always the giveaway that, however biting about trivialities, a political satire will be toothless when it comes to the important stuff.
What Veep is really about is showbiz, invariably TV and filmland's default analogy when satirizing other spheres of influence. Backbiting, star tantrums, flop sweat, entourage rivalries, image-tending: All these are generic to any and every kind of fame, or so the Hollywood assumption goes. That's why outrageous vanity can be made to seem like the inside scoop on pretty much any high-octane milieu without a lot of boning up on particulars.
However shallow—and is it ever—this kind of fake knowingness usually has enough truth in it to be good for some not-totally-dumb laughs, and that's the case here. Trust me, even if the debut episode leaves you as stone-faced as it did me, the show's foul-mouthed zest will grow on you. Still, Iannuci did seem more sophisticated about British backroom mores than he does about the Yank equivalent, which may just mean we transatlantic bumpkins wouldn't have known the difference if he got life inside 10 Downing Street all wrong. Anyway, you'll have a better time watching Veep if you don't expect the show to tell you much about the real or even "real" Washington.
The premise—Selina Meyer lurching from one embarrassment to the next, with frantic backstairs damage control in between—keeps Dreyfus's performance too high-pitched in a way that could get monotonous down the road. Even so, she does insecure, not especially likable chatterbox self-centeredness as well as any actor around, with plenty of entertaining support from a cast including Anna Chlumsky (one peach of a second banana) and Timothy C. Simons as a White House fifth wheel who's convinced he invented the first one. The show's comedic anchor is Matt Walsh as the veep's harried press flack, the inheritor to Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It and In The Loop. Considering her top billing, credit Dreyfus for not pulling rank—so far, anyway—since she must know the writers give Walsh all the best lines.
Still, if only because The West Wing got us so accustomed to an illusion of contemporary verisimilitude as any Beltway-set series's baseline, you can't help wincing at all the basic stuff Veep gets wrong. Even discounting the very retro way Ianucci treats the mere idea of a female vice president as the stuff of Lucy Ricardo-style antics, the whole concept of the No. 2 slot as a ridiculous job seems antiquated, thanks to Dick Cheney's conversion of the EOB into the second Bush administration's Death Star.
Even if it weren't, the way Dreyfus's character gets no deference from anybody is a mistake. At its worst, the vice presidency may be all pomp and no circumstance, but the pomp is part of the joke. Only the top dog in the Oval Office can afford to openly disrespect the close-but-no-cigar cur barking after ambulances, which is why it's another mistake that the nameless president here never appears. Didn't Ianucci see the possibilities for one lulu of a comic dynamic when those two are behind closed doors?
Maybe Veep's most striking failure of observation is its creator's underestimation of how tough—or sociopathically unembarrassable, maybe—successful politicians are. Sure, Joe Biden is almost as gaffe-prone in public as Selina Meyer, but the difference is that he never acts flustered about it. Convinced that the glory of being Joe Biden trumps all missteps, he sails on. However deranged, Sarah Palin's self-love is made of steel. Thanks to her hubby, Hillary Clinton has undergone public humiliations on a scale few people ever experience, but no one's ever detected that getting in the way of her current job. These people are not like you and me.
Of course, the promise and/or pretense of democracy is that they are. Even so, by turning Selina Meyer into just another wackily frazzled career gal who's out of her depth, Veep gives the crowd-pleasing game away. All belittling cleverness on the surface, the series's idea of inside-the-Beltway cynicism is actually kind of sentimental compared to the real thing.