FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, famously said that his office wasn’t worth “a bucket of warm piss.” So it’s perhaps a sign of Veep’s realism that the new HBO comedy feels a lot like a receptacle. Sloshing with warmed-over jokes about Washington politics seemingly written by a New Yorker cartoonist and the satirical musical theater troupe the Capitol Steps, and splattered with compulsive, banal vulgarity, Veep is certainly a warm bucket of something.
Created by Armando Iannucci, one of the best contemporary satirists working today, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, possibly the great sitcom actress of her generation, supported by a spectacular cast of comic actors that includes Upright Citizens Brigade’s underrated and often underserved Matt Walsh and Tony Hale, produced within the creative utopia of HBO, and tackling the post-“Yes We Can” era of political disappointment, Veep seems marked for success. Dreyfus’s facility with comic rage is perfectly suited to Iannucci’s spittle-flecked dialogue, and the surprising physical strength she once used to shove Jerry Seinfeld to the ground is here channeled into an explosive tension that suffuses every one of her scenes. Walsh and Hale, as her aides, are excellent milquetoast foils, and former child actor Anna Chlumsky is solid as the veep’s at-wit’s-end protégé.
In our highly acidic climate of contemporary American debate, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a political series that neither romanticizes our politicians a la The West Wing nor paints them as lovable, well-intentioned goofballs like Parks and Recreation. Veep, in its jaundiced picture of the highly dysfunctional world of Washington politics, doesn’t fall prey to either of those impulses. But neither does it offer a compelling third option. Over the past decade, thanks to the nightly annotative satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and even Rachel Maddow’s indignant, exasperated takedowns of popular rhetoric), the bar for comic critique of elected officials has actually been set pretty high. These gadflies snipe their targets with deep research and actual understanding of the issues. Their jokes work at a micro level, pulling apart the layers of disingenuousness, cynicism, and gross ignorance that coat American politics like a glaze.
Iannucci isn’t necessarily interested in that kind of detailed attention. Clearly aiming at a wider target, a kind of Dr. Strangelove-ian jape at the fundamental absurdity of democratic governance, Veep tries to skewer not the facts or the individual foibles, but the basic idea of government. In contrast to Kubrick’s electrifying, madcap, high comedy, though, Veep feels weirdly outdated, tired, and tiring. Politicians are lecherous, incompetent, irascible, and vain. Laws are filled with cheap, self-negating compromises. Leaders put on a politically correct face in public, but—get this—it’s only an act! Veep chugs along powered by such an elaborate, rapid-fire complex of clichés, received ideas, and commonplaces that even the most obvious of these shared secrets soon begin to feel false.
All of this attempted hilarity is particularly notable because the central figure of incompetence skewered here is a woman. In the first three episodes, Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer accidentally makes an off-color joke about the mentally disabled at a press conference, gets too tongue-tied and star-struck to broker a deal with a senator, and constantly delegates tasks to a hand-selected staff of people who are also incompetent. Meyer’s a complete mess as both a moral being and a professional. Despite the fact that Iannucci sprays his contempt at politicos of both genders, because the show must necessarily operate as a kind of speculative fiction (as no woman has ever been elected to the office), Veep often comes off as a long, involved variant on the damagingly simple-minded what-happens-when-the-president-has-her-period joke that circulated around both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Not every series has to be a feminist polemic, but could we at least not greenlight a pitch about a woman spectacularly failing at a job no woman has ever held?
Veep is indicative of HBO’s recent hit-or-miss track record. From the formally daring Enlightenment to the nearly note-perfect Girls to the increasingly sophisticated Game of Thrones (a far more interesting critique of power), the past year has seen the network innovating their way out of a period of post-Sopranos, post-Wire malaise by producing shows that look closely and patiently at their subjects. At the same time, however, they’ve also been responsible for Ricky Gervais’s childishly self-amused Life’s Too Short. Veep, along with Gervais’s show, is part of an alarming micro trend of moving away from the subtlety and intelligence that make HBO’s best shows as good as they are.
While its other shows are blazing new trails, shows like Veep, Life’s Too Short, and Bored to Death have been busy mining old comic genres for new life. Bored to Death was able to humanely fuse some of the charm of slapstick and film noir, but both of the newer shows seem lost in their attempts to create modern versions of classical farce. Mistaking vulgarity for comic edge and very thinly stretched punnery for wit, Veep is less a trenchant satire about contemporary politics than it is a relentlessly mean-spirited spectacle about crummy people. What does it tell us about political life that we don’t already recognize as the basic premise of any late-night monologue? What nuance does it add to the cultural representation of people in power that isn’t already covered by bad Saturday Night Live cold opens? The unintended effect of Iannucci’s depiction of elected officials’ stupidity is that it assumes the viewer is also a little bit stupid. Sure, Veep asks us to follow its labyrinthine screwball dialogue and catch jokes on the fly, but I’m not sure the viewer isn’t being talked down to. At the close of one of the early episodes, Meyer, sick with a GI bug, rushes out of a photo-op and jumps into her limo with her staff, and it’s implied that she sits down into a pile of her own feces. It’s a pretty on-the-nose image, an unsubtle critique you’d have to be pretty daft not to get. But it’s just the kind of bucket Iannucci seems to be throwing at us.