Many jobs are what you make of them. When you become Vice President of the United States, though, the job is what the President lets you make of it. Sometimes, the VP gets invested with tremendous power, as President Bush the younger did with Dick Cheney; other times, the VP is marginalized as quickly as possible, as President Bush the elder did with Dan Quayle.
Selina Meyer, the heroine (of sorts) of the new HBO comedy “Veep” (Sunday at 10 p.m.), desperately wants to be a Cheney, but is instead more of a Quayle.
We frequently see Selina enter her office asking her assistant if the President has called. The answer is always no. She’s so disconnected from the man in charge that he’s never actually glimpsed in the series, instead represented by a twentysomething goon named Jonah whom everyone in Selina’s office despises, even as they recognize that his low-level job in the west wing makes him more powerful than all of them combined.
But Selina never stops dreaming of mattering, even if her pet issues are either dry (filibuster reform) or obscure (replacing all the plastic cutlery in Washington with more environmentally-friendly forks and knives made of corn starch), and even though she’s too busy putting out fires of her own creation to get anything else done.
“Veep” was created by Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci, whose political satire series “The Thick of It” won awards and devoted fans in the UK before being spun off into the continent-spanning film “In the Loop.” Now he’s doing a series set in the United States, with a beloved star in Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer and other familiar faces like Tony Hale (as Selina’s body man Gary) and “In the Loop” holdover Anna Chlumsky (as her chief of staff Amy).
The accents are different, as is the system of government, but the angle and withering sense of humor are the same. Iannucci’s satire isn’t about ideology.(*) His characters aren’t liberal or conservative. (It’s never even hinted what party Selina is in.) They have no beliefs other than a desire for more power – or, when that fails, to hang onto the power they currently have, at all costs.
(*) Inevitably, some people who haven’t seen the show have assumed it’s some kind of Sarah Palin parody, when, gender aside, Selina has about as much in common with Palin as she does with Estes Kefauver.
When Selina gets word that her toothless Clean Jobs Commission is on the verge of being approved, she boasts, “That is so great for me!” Amy, who still has a thimble of idealism left running through her veins, asks, “And the country?,” prompting Selina to clumsily pivot and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s what I meant!” When she’s briefly placed in charge of the country while the President is experiencing chest pains, it’s all Selina can do to hide her glee.
And it’s not even that she’s necessarily a bad person. There’s a sense that she once had beliefs that, like those of most of her colleagues and underlings, were slowly ground down after years of being part of the political machine.
As Jonah (Timothy Simons) neatly sums up the apathy and priorities of this town, “When a sexual harasser dies, we sign his wife’s card! That’s how Washington works!”
It’s a fantastic role for Dreyfus, capturing that same Elaine Benes sense of a person who thinks they’re smart constantly realizing they’re doing something colossally stupid. She tears into Iannucci’s dialogue, particularly the creative profanity he had so much fun deploying in “The Thick of It.”
There’s a kind of collective glee coming from the ensemble, really. Matt Walsh goes to town with the role of Selina’s press secretary Mike, who’s all but given up on taking any pleasure in his job. Realizing everyone at a party knew a piece of bad news before he did, he sighs, “I’m like the last guy in ‘Human Centipede’ in this.”
Hale has struggled since “Arrested Development” to find a role that didn’t make him into a total cartoon, but he finally has the right part as Gary, whom everyone on the staff mocks even as they recognize his unrelenting loyalty to Selina and his unusual skillset. (As Amy explains with admiration while watching Gary aide Selina on a receiving line, he’s “like a human teleprompter for small talk.”)
In its first three episodes, “Veep” feels like a cut below what I’ve seen of Iannucci’s UK work, if only because it lacks a galvanizing figure like Peter Capaldi’s wicked, staggeringly vulgar bureaucrat Malcolm Tucker. But other characters get to utter some hilariously Tucker-esque lines(**), the ensemble works incredibly well together – in marked contrast to Selina’s dysfunction, competitive staff – and there’s a briskness and intelligence to the whole shebang.
(**) If your strongest memory of Chlumsky is still from “My Girl,” then it’s particularly bracing to hear Vada Sultenfuss cuss like a longshoreman.
Though the theme song sounds a bit like it could have been part of the score of “The West Wing,” this isn’t a remotely optimistic show. The Washington that Selina Meyer knows is the place where, at any moment, she can be warned that “the utensils are politicized.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org