“Veep” and the Beltway

The season two promotional image of Veep shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus dozing off at her seat (presumably at the UN or some such location), a placard labeled “United States” in front of her and the tagline “Diplomacy in Action” lingering smugly overhead.  The advertisement is almost too on point, because the overwhelming majority of the jokes on Veep are structured on this model (though with more elaborate language, often involving “fuck”).  If you get this ad, you get Veep. Therein lies the problem.

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I like Veep.  I like its cast–a lot.  I like its bawdy language.  And I like the sometimes elaborate narratives of backbiting, underhanded dealings, and incompetence that structure most of the episodes.  Head writer Armando Iannucci has a real gift with foul-mouthed dialogue that comes across as both improvised yet tight and razor sharp, handled ably by Dreyfus, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, and many others (the inclusion of Gary  Cole has been an exceptional choice). The show is a pleasure to watch.

The presence of New York Magazine essayist Frank Rich as an executive producer reveals the show’s desire to accurately represent the monstrous political climate of D.C. in our current times and the show prides itself on its Beltway-insider knowledge.  Recently interviewed on the pop-culture interview show Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, Iannucci pointed out how much better he understood the workings of the U.S. government than most of his American cohorts, telling Thorn that he’s the only one who has read all four volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of president Lyndon B. Johnson.  Who wouldn’t crow about such an achievement? After finishing The Power Broker I spoke about it to others with the same breathless sense of accomplishment some might use to describe completing the Iditarod. But Iannucci’s choice of text also reveals one of the show’s key failings–the absence of real politics. Though it’s not worth going into in great length, I take issue with the logic of Caro’s writing. In a straight, intellectual history model of politics, where politics is understood exclusively as the decisions made by a specific set of political actors (presidents, legislatures, etc.), Caro’s writing privileges the individual actor  so that politics becomes merely the behaviors of a few, key public figures. This isn’t wrong, merely limited, and ignores larger social trends, ideologies, and economic forces as components of history and change. It often times turns politics into a chamber drama, separate from the world of real people.

This isn’t to speak poorly of Iannucci’s show (or Caro’s books for that matter) but to point out the kind of political myopia the show lampoons while almost flawlessly mimicking.  The most obvious example of this problem; vice-president Selena Meyer’s (Dreyfus) party affiliation is never mentioned. This is a clunky omission, especially given that shows like The West Wing managed to engage with the specifics of partisan politics while not being reduced to those politics.  But this omission ranges further into the show.  As Meyer navigates through legislation on clean jobs or immigration, her own stances are never articulated and her allegiances never clear.  It would not make sense for Meyer to become any kind of political mouthpiece, but the show’s refusal to even scratch that surface seems almost cowardly at times.  In this regard, Iannucci might be wise to reread Caro–though I disagree with his model of history, the consequences of Johnson and his legislation (like Robert Moses and his engineering projects) are central to his telling of the story.  In Veep, such issues are irrelevant.

Ignoring Meyer’s politics fits in with the show’s vision of U.S. elected officials–they’re all a bunch of bums.  We don’t get Meyer’s politics because, the show implies, she doesn’t either.  Like everyone else in D.C., from the aloof, never-seen president to her grasping director of communications Dan Egan (played by Reid Scott), power is all that really matters.  Meyer is continually miffed at being left out of major policy conversations (something the show seems to be exploring more in season 2) and being saddled with vanity projects like obesity and healthy eating; yes, in Veep, public health initiatives are equivalent to busywork. But the show wants us to laugh at Meyer for wanting so badly to enter into those conversations while seemingly having nothing to say.  This contempt extends across the show’s universe to almost every politician and bureaucrat  who enters the scene. And since her party identification is an irrelevant detail, the show implies that everyone in D.C. operates in this way; it’s equal-opportunity cynicism.

But such cynicism is cheap and relatively easy (and yes, a bit satisfying and accurate too). It doesn’t require a stance on the part of its audience beyond contempt for those fat cats in Washington.  And as health care reform turned a moderate president into Hitler and gun-control legislation fell victim to rancid special-interest groups, such cynicism feels particularly hollow at times.  It might be a trickier tight-rope to walk, but foregrounding the political positions of its various characters while also holding them up to the audience’s scorn for their failures would produce something very compelling.  It did, with Iannucci’s 2009 film In the Loop. That film offers a fictional narrative about the Anglo-American rush to war in Iraq in which the machinations one sees on Veep end up spurring both countries into a fool-hardy war in the Middle East.  The characters of In the Loop behave in very similar ways to the characters on Veep, But Iannucci takes the braver stance of seeing how those venal political behaviors will end up costing thousands of lives. The humor connects with something much more real and dark.  Veep plays more like Dick Van Dyke’s iconic trip over the ottoman, just in the halls of Congress.

My family and I share wildly different politics.  I come from religious conservatives who belong to the NRA, watch Fox News, and see liberal media bias everywhere (they also happen to be lovely people).  We try to avoid our political differences but sometimes conversations flare up and sides very quickly align.  No one learns from one another and people on opposite sides of the ideological line stay put.  But we love one another and often times someone will throw out a conciliatory, “well they’re all a bunch of crooks.”  This allows each side to go to its corner with a bit of dignity, and projects the problem away from our kitchen table and back onto those political actors we can safely look down on.  It also allows us to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays together, so it’s not the worst tactic.  And perhaps it’s unfair to critique Veep for the politics it doesn’t have or refuses to have.  But a show that can rest too comfortably in this cynicism starts to feel less like “dark comedy” and merely an ugly one.

***On a related note: Despite my criticism of Veep, I have to absolutely hand it to Julia Louis Dreyfus on her portrayal of the vice-president.  Recently I have been re-watching Seinfeld episodes and I’ve even seen a bit of her previous show The New Adventures of Old Christine.  I can think of few other comedic actors who are willing to take on such unlikeable and unsympathetic characters.  Louis-Dreyfus seems to consciously choose roles where she can expertly portray selfish, petty, and small minded characters, ones that refuse audience sympathy and identification and she always handles it beautifully (even on a weak show like Old Christine).  Despite her multiple Emmy awards, I don’t think she gets enough recognition for her almost Brechtian commitment to unlikeability.

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