Tuesday, June 12, 2012

HBO’s Veep: Close, But No Cigar

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 12, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in Veep, on HBO

This past Sunday, HBO aired the eighth and final episode of its new comedy Veep. Back in April, HBO premiered two new original comedy series: Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, and Veep, a political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a frustrated U.S. Vice President. Both series were almost immediately renewed for second seasons. As I wrote about at the time, Girls launched strong, with Dunham’s pilot effectively putting on display all the reasons why I knew I would keep watching. Veep, on the other hand, fell decidedly flat. Perhaps, I thought at the time, it was a question of my differing levels of expectation. I had few expectations for Girls and the original look and feel of the series made it easy to get excited about. But if Girls benefited from having few familiar names or faces behind it, Veep likely suffered if anything from its too exciting pedigree. Veep not only marked the return of Louis-Dreyfus to the world of edgy comedy (after five long seasons as the star of CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine. a traditionally-structured laugh track sitcom that I could never get myself to watch with any regularity), it was also created by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer/director behind the BBC’s The Thick of It, and its spin-off feature film In the Loop. (The Thick of It chronicles the efforts of a backbench British MP who, through no power or talent of his own, has risen beyond his own capacities. The show details, among other things, his struggles to merely keep his job – which he often succeeds at, more through a clumsy grace than strategy.) The Thick of It (which aired intermittently from 2005 to 2009) is like a post-HBO version of the BBC’s Yes Minister. With its mockumentary format, Iannucci’s signature profanity and the show’s improvised feel, The Thick of It was a popular and critical success, and the promise of bringing that raw energy to HBO in a new political satire, set in D.C. instead of London, perhaps set the bar rather high for the new series. But whatever the reasons, those first episodes of Veep left me cold. The potential of the series was visible (co-stars included Tony Hale, in perhaps his best role since Arrested Development ended in 2006, and Anna Chlumsky, who’d appeared in In the Loop in 2009), but all of its elements – strong as they were – didn’t come together enough to grab me. And following the scatologically-themed punch line to the second episode, I set the show aside for several weeks, only returning to those missed episodes in anticipation of this week's season finale. What I found when I returned was a series that was slowly beginning to find its way.

Veep, it should be emphasized, is not an American remake of The Thick of It.  An US-network remake of that series, with Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz at the helm, was attempted in 2007 without Iannucci’s involvement in any significant capacity, and the general consensus – even Iannucci’s – was that the ABC pilot was rightfully shelved. Veep, on the other hand, is an entirely new series, created by Iannucci, with no obvious character parallels to The Thick of It and taking full advantage of the very different political universe of Washington, D.C. The comic potential of the office of the Vice Presidency is palpable – the job itself seems to turn serious seasoned politicians into gaffe-prone buffoons, evidenced by the absurdity of recent actual Vice Presidents, from Dan Quayle to Joe Biden (and even Dick Cheney, quite possibly the least funny American politician/public figure in a generation, paused briefly during his tenure as VP to shoot a friend in a face). There’s an element of ironic absurdity built right into the position itself: where else is the prize for almost becoming the most powerful person in the world the opportunity to have all your power, influence, and independence slowly stripped away over a period of 4, and even 8, years?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in Veep
The series is set in the office of Vice President Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus), with her team of advisers and staff, which includes Hale as her personal aide, Chlumsky as Amy, her Chief of Staff, and Reid Scott (who co-starred for four seasons in Betsy Thomas’s sitcom My Boys on TBS), as Dan, an ambitious staffer brought in to shake things up. On the whole, her staff is intermittently savant competent and almost slapstick clumsy. As individuals, each member of the staff has their own self-interested ambitions and well-defined survival instincts. As a team, they have only one ambition: try to get the Vice President’s name on some piece of significant legislation, thereby keeping her in the news long enough for her to one day perhaps get another shot at the Presidency. It is no surprise that this first season ends without any success on their part, with their every effort blocked (intentionally or unintentionally) by the off-screen President. (A running gag has Meyer ask her secretary every episode if the President called. Of course he hasn’t.)

The show has had a number of small moments of brilliance – like when a momentary bout of Presidential heartburn makes Selina the most important person in the country, for about 20 minutes or so, before being unceremoniously knocked back down, or the implication that how her status as a woman somehow put her “naturally” in competition with the First Lady and not the President himself.

But what has been frustrating to me as a viewer however is the enigma of Meyer herself. Even after a full first season, there is much about Selina Meyer we don’t know about, though that is a large part due to the show creators’ careful refusal to indicate which side of the political aisle she sits on. (You may have thought that Louis-Dreyfus's character was an obvious riff on Sarah Palin, but Meyer has little in common with the former Alaskan Governor outside of their hair colour and gender.) And while this resistance comes perhaps from an admirable objective – the series’ intended target is the culture of politics, and not its content – the result is that much of the main character’s crucial political biography remains unsaid.

We’ve learned that Vice President Meyer has a failed marriage behind her and a struggling relationship with her college-age daughter (Sarah Sutherland), both of which likely a result of sacrifices borne of her political status, but we don’t know why she entered politics in the first place, or whether or not she has any political principles left to sacrifice. When the one bit of Constitutional power invested in the office of the Vice Presidency – being able to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate – is in this first season remade into a powerful testament to her disempowerment, with Meyer is forced to vote down her own policy initiative at the ‘request’ of the White House, it seems to come only at the cost of her pride, but not any principle – be it personal or political. Another episode has Meyer compelled to publicly contradict her previous established stance on immigration, and once again, the struggle is cast on the level of losing face and not even a hint of the issue itself. Does she care one way or another about the issue? Any issue?

The contemporary challenge of political satire is that when the real political world already borders on self-parody, you’ve got to make the audience care about the people that populate that world enough that they should suffer with them. Consider the Showtime’s recent House of Lies (with Don Cheedle and Kristen Bell), which tells the story bunch of soulless people doing unforgivable things to other soulless people: it’s hard to care enough to even reach the level of shock or interest required to be entertained.
Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh and Reid Scott in Veep

Ironically, especially for someone like me with as strong a sensitivity to the most painful aspects of cringe comedy (I essentially need a chaperon to watch a new episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or else risk turning off before the end of almost every scene), the sheer watchability of most episodes of Veep speaks notably to its relative lack of real bite. The deeper humanity of the characters – especially Meyer herself – was kept largely under raps for most of the season, making a timely appearance only in its most recent, and coincidentally, final episodes of the season.

There’s a weird alchemy at work in the best of the contemporary dark TV comedies. Even if the purpose of the show is to make you uncomfortable while you laugh, the people that inhabit that world need to have some slightly normal emotional lives and recognizable ambitions, otherwise the pain of their frustrations doesn't read, and their failures don’t hurt enough to hold your attention. BBC’s Ricky Gervais seems to know that recipe almost intuitively, and has given viewers two of the best (read: funniest and most anguishing) examples of the genre: his groundbreaking The Office and his follow-up Extras (which was a co-production of the BBC and HBO). While the darkest of comedies can often get away with portraying a universe devoid of most familiar human emotions and priorities, the best of the genre works by intermixing cynicism with some genuine humanity. And then undercutting it completely.

Think of the role Jason Bateman’s role on Arrested Development. Without Michael Bluth as the emotional straight man among this cast of consummately quirky and over-the-top relations, the show story lines would have been too cartoonish and far less funny.  But in this case of Veep, a political series whose basic claim is that politics is almost exclusively about the practice of maintaining power from election to election, dominating the news cycle, and scoring points on petty grudges hardly seems like a revelation in the American political context. The only way to draw viewers in enough to care is to detail the painful personal compromises and costs of a life lived in that context. It is ultimately on these terms that Veep finally began to work for me, though it was slow in coming.

It took all eight episodes of humiliation and degradation to finally break down Meyer enough for her pain to be real for me. Near the end of the final episode, as the combination of a failed romantic relationship, her inability to connect with her daughter, and a precipitous drop in her popularity ratings, visible cracks finally begin to appear in her demeanour. As she prepares to speech at a fundraiser, she leans in to one of her staffers and whispers: “I’m a political leper and an emotional time bomb. So here’s an idea: let’s put me on stage.” This brief moment of perspective and potential self-understanding, was like a small revelation. And it may also bode quite well for the show's second season.