Before watching the pilot episodes of HBO’s new comedy Veep on HBO.com this morning, where it’s available streaming for free, I was prepared for the show to be as funny as it is. And, make no mistake, this is the most laugh out loud hilarious television comedy pilot in years.
The sheer jokes per minute quotient is at or above the level of the quickest/cleverest shows out there, in the neighborhood of Archer, or 30 Rock at its best, the kind of show where you have to stop yourself from laughing too hard at one great line for fear of missing the next one.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how surprisingly sharp and substantive the show’s political satire actually is. While early reviews were almost uniformly positive the one negative note some sounded was a concern that as a political satire the show is somewhat toothless as a result of so much of the action being driven by petty personal rivalries, trivial gaffes etc. without a sense of something larger at stake. Having now actually seen the show I can say that in my opinion this Matthew Zoller Seitz review and especially this Jaime Weinman review seem wrongheaded.
First of all, both reviews repeat the conventional wisdom about this show that was repeated in all the press leading up to the premiere, that the show is so non-partisan/non-ideological that it’s impossible to tell which political party is represented by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s vice president.
This is technically true, in that it’s never stated and I guess the plans are to maintain this convention for as long as the show is on the air. But let’s get real, it’s clear that Selina Meyer is a Democrat, and a relatively liberal one at that. If you don’t believe me ask yourself if you can imagine any Republican vice president pushing a Clean/Green Jobs Initiative or trying to replace all plastic utensils at government functions with more eco-friendly ones.
So, Selina Meyer and her staff probably inhabit more or less the same ideological universe as President Bartlett and his staff on The West Wing. The difference between that show and this one is that all of their ideals have been ground down to dust after years in Washington and and no big, inspiring speech can rectify the situation. Part of the reason for this is non-ideological, e.g. the relative powerlessness of the Vice President’s office to that of the President, but the deeper reason is that both entities are powerless before the people that really run the government, corporate lobbyists.
Far from being superficial and non-ideological as Weinman says, Veep, while deeply cynical, has a pretty strong lefty worldview, though most of the big TV critics have missed it. But one of my favorite bloggers – chef, hip-hop fan, and food writer Eddie Huang – is actually pretty accurate with this tweet:
This show Veep is so fucking good! So cynical, nihilistic, and setting fire to every thing. Like 30 Rock if written by Howard Zinn
— Eddie Huang (@MrEddieHuang) April 23, 2012
The central joke of the first half hour, that Selina is forced to give a speech in place of the POTUS and said speech is almost completely redacted (or “pencil fucked” as she memorably puts it) is not, as most reviewers seem to think, that Selina is being forced into this ridiculous situation because of her powerlessness in relation to the president.
The joke is that these redactions were actually done by the President’s bosses, lobbyists from Big Plastic, which is ultimately the same thing as Big Oil. When Selina vainly goes to a powerful Senator for help with a Big Oil/Plastic problem caused by an ill-advised tweet from Selina’s “tweet monkey” being picked up by right wing bloggers, the senator tells her (in just one of countless examples of creatively deployed profanity in the pilot) “You do not want to fuck with those guys because they fuck in a very unpleasant fashion.”
In the only line of West Wing- like dialogue in the pilot Selina replies by asking her if she really wants to sell her soul “to the people who make toothbrushes and . . . . .toothbrush holders,” to which the senator replies that all of the members of Selina’s Clean Jobs Task Force are in fact bankrolled by Big Plastic. The senator then says, in my favorite line of dialogue of the whole episode, “I could draw you a diagram, but it would be a very simple diagram.”
This all isn’t to say that someone can’t enjoy the show without looking for these deeper political messages, just that these messages are there, and not even that far beneath the surface, contrary to what other reviewers are saying. There’s plenty of apolitical hilarity to enjoy regardless. The dialogue is incredibly stylized and clever, a sort of blend of 30s/40s comedy rat-a-tat speed with the profanity of Tarantino or Mamet.
The performances are uniformly fantastic. JLD has now found a role which conclusively escapes the shadow of Elaine Benes. And Tony Hale as her pathetically servile “Body Man” has finally found a good post Buster Bluth role. Anna Chlumsky displays a genius for eye rolls and other crazy facial reactions as Selina’s chief of staff.
In other hilarious non-ideological bits of business Reid Scott is great as Dan Egan, a douchey twentysomething political operative who jumps ship from Senator’s staff to Selina’s. He constantly mocks the age of Selina’s press secretary, asking if he “ran press for Moses.”
Selina’s Press Secretary, Mike McClintock, is played by Matt Walsh, who according to imdb was born in 1964. McClintock is in turn forever trying to get back at Egan and other twentysomething politicos with references to Doogie Howser and My Left Foot among other things, which they in turn tell him they’ve never heard of. The show captures how the Washington world is in effect run by twentysomething staffers, with the older people who are the actual elected officials functioning as something more like figureheads, a detail most DC-set entertainments miss.
It’s true that all of these characters are forever involved in trivial “crises” and petty disputes but that’s only because in Veep the real power resides with Big Plastic, Big Oil or whatever powerful interest decides to fuck you in an unpleasant fashion.