If you’re turned off by politics and yearning to confirm your worst instincts about what politicians are like, you’ll love HBO’s new series Veep. It’s satire, and British satire at that, and for Americans who basked in the idealism of The West Wing and how it foreshadowed Barack Obama’s election, Veep does the opposite. It looks back, elevating a Sarah Palin–like figure to the vice presidency with a narrative that relies on one-liners that provoke uneasy laughter and expose the smallness of the veep’s vision.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, whose party is not revealed, but it doesn’t take long to determine she’s a liberal version of Palin, identified with clean-energy jobs and filibuster reform. The titans of Capitol Hill are wary of this woman crashing their party, and Meyer doesn’t inspire confidence. Ideology aside, she has a high dingbat quotient. Think Elaine from Seinfeld, scattered and a bit bizarre, and a heartbeat from the presidency.
I had to keep reminding myself this is comedy, because Elaine, or Sarah, or Selina, take your pick, is not who you want answering the phone at 3 a.m. Comedy writer and director Armando Iannucci, acclaimed for his satirical portrayals of British life, manages to perpetuate the worst stereotype of a female politician. Insecure, emotional, and self-involved, Selina questions if she should she wear glasses or not. “Glasses make me look weak,” Veep pouts, likening them to a “wheelchair for the eye.” Either way, there’s a sycophantic aide at her elbow ready to agree with whatever she says.
In fairness to Iannucci, Veep was in development in 2010 when the aftertaste of the Palin campaign was still lingering, and insider accounts revealed just how unprepared Palin was to step into the presidency, should that be required. There is a scene in Veep (which premieres April 22) where the president experiences chest pains and Meyer is rushed to the Situation Room, barely able to contain her glee. In language as fatuous as it is funny, she calls the ailing chief executive “a faultless GPS in guiding our nation.” Told to stand down, that the president is fine, an aide notes dryly, “The president is back in charge of the GPS.”
But in the midst of an election cycle where no female is on the short list for vice president, and women’s groups are silent on the subject, Veep seems caught in a time warp. Palin has moved on; she’s now dropping by the Today show. Politicians are fearful of what’s called “the Palin effect,” shorthand for advancing an attractive female politician too fast and too soon. The portrayal of Selina as the veep enhances the Palin effect, and is likely to produce a collective cringe from a generation of women who still wish for Hillary Clinton in the White House.
If the aim of this show is to get viewers to disrespect everybody in elected office, mission accomplished. The White House and its minions are portrayed as bullies, redacting one of Selina’s fundraising speeches until she has little to say. Her off-the-cuff remarks produce a stinging Washington Post “Style” piece that sends Selina ballistic. There is nothing to learn, except politicians and the people they surround themselves with are more foulmouthed than most; according to The New Yorker, the F-word is heard nearly 250 times in the first eight episodes, which must be a record, even for HBO.
Veep is not meant to be another West Wing, a lodestar to our better selves. Cynicism has increased, and Veep lets us in on the joke—nobody is ever doing the right thing for the right reason. When Selina learns that her clean-energy jobs council has the president’s go-ahead, she whoops, “That’s so great for me!” And for the country, an aide reminds. “Yes, that’s what I mean,” she says.
The show gets all the trappings of power right, the hovering Secret Service agents, the ambitious and opportunistic aides, and the longtime factotum familiar to everyone in political life. Tony Hale from Arrested Development plays Gary, the aide always at the veep’s side with no known opinions of his own. Future episodes promise a competition between the veep and the first lady over acquiring and naming a dog (sound familiar?). “This is Parental Ground Zero,” says Selina. Maybe so, but we’ve been there, done that, which makes the bar for this comedy an impossibly high one to clear.