Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns to TV as America’s first female Vice President.
I didn’t know what to expect from Veep. I’m a big fan of creator Armando Ianucci’s work with Steve Coogan on the various Alan Partridge programs for the BBC, but I’ve never actually seen The Thick of It, his British political sitcom that’s well-praised on both sides of the Atlantic. I have no idea how similar Thick of It is to Veep, Ianucci’s new HBO sitcom about a disrespected and slightly pathetic female Vice President and her staff of beleaguered aides and consultants. Based on the generally funny but unexceptional first few episodes of Veep, I’m wondering if a little something got lost en route from the UK.
Yes, Veep is very often funny, which is the baseline we should expect from a good comedy. It’s more clever than hilarious, combining fast-paced and occasionally witty dialogue with plots that curl back on themselves to awkward effect in a way that resembles so many noteworthy post-Seinfeld sitcoms. It matches the breakneck speed of an Aaron Sorkin show with the cringe-worthy embarrassments of Ricky Gervais. You know how The West Wing rarely spent any time on Bartlett’s Vice Presidents? Veep is like a West Wing where absolutely every character realizes how insignificant the office is even as they panic and stress and treat every minor issue like a potentially world-ending problem. It makes avoiding embarrassment look like the Vice President’s only job, which might actually be true.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Vice President Selina Meyer, is obviously the star of the show’s marketing. She’s at the center of every episode but it’s a true ensemble show, with roughly equal screen-time for everybody involved. Other familiar faces include Anna Chlumsky (My Girl) as Meyer’s Chief of Staff, Tony Hale (Arrested Development) as Meyer’s very Buster Bluth-ian personal assistant, and Matt Walsh (Upright Citizens Brigade) as Meyer’s tired communications director. Reid Scott plays an ambitious young communications staffer who joins Meyer’s team during the first episode, immediately providing friction with Chlumsky and Walsh. There’s also a secretary (Sufe Bradshaw) who might be the most competent member of Meyer’s staff and an obnoxious White House liaison (Timothy Simons) who fully realizes that being the lowest man on the President’s staff is still a step higher than anybody working for the Vice President. It’s a talented bunch of likable actors playing unlikable characters, and hopefully future episodes will flesh those characters out beyond their more basic and stereotypical traits.
There’s a lot of political wheeling and dealing in Veep, but it never overwhelms the comedy. A recurring storyline introduced in “Fundraising” finds Meyer trying to create a “clean jobs commission”, and her gamesmanship with various Senators and Congresspersons and (most powerful of all) lobbyists impacts whatever ethics she might once have had. It’s an appropriately cynical look at a political system that almost nobody has any faith in. That cynicism is justified but so pervasive in our culture that it barely registers in Veep. Of course the lobbyist has the greatest pull, if not directly on Meyer than on the other officials she needs to greenlight her commission. At least the show doesn’t present this as some kind of shocking or important realization.
Veep is a smartly written, well-cast sitcom with a unique setting that’s perfectly suited for incisive and insightful comedy. It doesn’t have a distinctive voice, though. It feels like a fairly traditional workplace sitcom, like Parks & Recreation with tons of swearing and a cast full of characters that hate each other. A pilot for an American version of The Thick of It was produced but rejected by ABC a few years ago, and it’s easy to see Veep as a new attempt to retool Ianucci’s biggest hit for an American network. Its awkwardness and Vice President jokes are funny (if easy), but so far Veep hasn’t given us a reason to care about its characters or what it has to say about American politics. That lack of depth can keep a good show from turning into a great show.