In 1939 there was outrage from politicians and the media alike about Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington, believing its plot about corruption in Washington would destroy society’s faith in politicians and undermine the very fabric of democracy. In 2012 Armando Iannuci’s Veep has Vice President Selina Meyer being carried away from a photo-op in a frozen yoghurt place because she had soiled herself. Times have changed.
That’s right, Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It and In The Loop, has made the leap to American television with HBO’s Veep, chronicling the job that nobody wants: the Vice Presidency of the United States. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is at her comedic best, depicting VP Selina as she slowly implodes over the course of the season. She capably portrays her as somebody you’d fear to get on the wrong side of, evident when proclaiming that the door to her office should be half its height so people can only approach her ‘on their motherfucking knees’. She is surrounded by an exceptional cast, with a stand out role from Tony Hale, who all adroitly deliver the usual brilliant dialogue we’ve come to expect from Iannucci, filling the show with uncountable one-liners, and the sheer pace gives almost no time to process the jokes for fear of missing the next one.
The show gives an angle on Washington that’s almost never been done on American television before; the petty human side of politicians, captured by deputy communications director Dan Egan whose every word is calculated to advance his career. This is juxtaposed by his superior, the cynical Mike McLintock, played by Matt Walsh, who has been around Washington too long and just doesn’t care anymore. This is the heart of the show, the human side of the day to day job. We may not know what it’s like to work in politics but we all know what it’s like to work in a job you hate, surrounded by people you despise.
But there is something missing from the show, and not just a shouting Scottish bastard called Malcolm. It lacks relevance, because in a political climate which is ever increasingly polarised between two extremes, where American political rhetoric is baby-murdering communists on one side and idiotic small-minded racists on the other, Veep tries to walk the tightrope of bipartisan politics. It’s an amiable attempt, but deliberately not stating which party is in power means the show lacks a cutting edge, having to skirt the true issues and rely only on bipartisan ones. The two best scenes of the series were first, when Selina was rushed off to a private room, suddenly contemplating the possibility of being president, only to then be dropped down into vice presidential insignificance. The second was when her chief of staff, Amy, had to sell her soul on immigration to a bigoted southern senator at the behest of the Vice President herself, all for the senator to ‘appear to like’ filibuster reform – a moment of the show reaching its cynical highpoint. It was the closest we got to meaty political discourse, a tantalising glimpse of what the show could be if it were to take off its gloves, only for the team to return to an ultimately pointless attempt at passing ‘clean jobs’ legislation before being demoted to a healthy eating initiative.
This lack of relevance could be specifically designed to emphasise the frustrating nature of the vice presidency, to supposedly be the second most powerful person in the world, a heartbeat away from being president, but to have to spend your time dealing with media appearances and public perception. It could be intended to show Selina as a tragic character who once dreamt of making change and is now hampered by the system she inhabits, but ultimately it feels like the show could be doing more. Sure, it’s never going to be The West Wing and isn’t trying to be, but it needs more political substance.
This is only in comparison to the already high standards set by Armando Iannuci and I have faith in the show, as it is already an original voice on the human nature of politicians to a greater extent than even The West Wing was. Even though faith in politicians is possibly at an all-time low, Veep has left me with many new empathetic images of them. I’ll never be able see a political endorsement again without thinking their smiling faces and hushed voices are hiding profanities thrown at each other – that and an image of Joe Biden continuously asking ‘Has the President called?’ despite already knowing the answer.