Julia Louis Dreyfuss, center in red, as Vice President Selina Meyer, in HBO series ‘Veep’
(Spoiler alert: Don’t read this post if you have not watched the episode and intend to.)
The inaugural episode last night of celebrated British film and television director Armando Iannucci’s new HBO series ‘Veep’ felt like a disinherited son of the fantastically biting ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ and gravitas laden ‘The West Wing.’ In case you do not get my drift, ‘Veep’ is not for you. Or, you will have to watch some episodes of both first to know that I am actually praising it.
Featuring Julia Louis Dreyfuss as Vice President Selina Meyer, the first episode showed great promise but, equally, propensity to lose it. I suspect that Iannucci (pronounced Aya nucchi) wants the audience to feel as if things could go desperately wrong with Meyer and her staff anytime and they do. But in the process a couple of times I felt things could go wrong the new show itself.
Being HBO, and not television, language is not required to be watched by its makers at all, which in my book, is a largely good thing, although it can get gratuitously profane occasionally.
Early on Meyer, who is standing in for an unnamed US president, at an event, she is utterly dismayed to discover that her speech has been “pencilfucked” by a White House liaison. Pencilfucked, incidentally, means a document so heavily edited that it appears to be in tatters because of all the deletions penciled and corrections. I like the phrase. Someone needs to pencilfuck this blog but who has got the balls to do it?
I watched Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The West Wing’ from its very first episode with such proprietorial zeal that I would take umbrage at anyone else watching it. It was almost as if I wanted it to be broadcast exclusively for me and only on my TV. What I am trying to say is that I am a sucker for effectively done political dramas. Therefore, I will watch every episode of ‘Veep’.
The position of the US vice president is a truly odd one in that its occupant is just a step away from being the world’s most powerful person without almost ever becoming one. US presidents do not die in office that frequently and with the miracle of modern medicine they outlive their presidency by decades. Think of vice presidency as an extended foreplay that almost never climaxes into consummation. For that reason alone it is a rich subject for humor of all sorts–sarcasm, satire, irony, wit, buffoonery and so on. ‘Veep’s first episode sure had quite a bit of it but it gave me the feeling of having chanced upon something that was already underway before I got there.
As an introduction to the theme Iannucci and his writers puts Meyer in a couple of obviously humiliating situations, not to mention many minor mess-ups by her own staff. For instance, being a champion of biodegradable cutlery, she encounters an embarrassingly sparsely attended fundraiser because the plastics lobby does not take kindly to her campaign. Her aide tells the veep to “mingle” which befuddles her because there are barely seven people in the room. Mingling takes much more. As Meyer asks, “Did Simon mingle with Garfunkel?”
Then there is a belittling meeting with a powerful senator in order to maker her gaffe about the plastics lobby right. The senator is studiedly distracted by sending out emails while the vice president of the United States is blabbering away two feet away from her.
I liked many of the one liners. There was one about Veep’s aide not particularly liking the ceaselessly tall and annoying White House liaison Jonah. A little more than halfway through the episode after some “colossal fuckup” by the vice president, he shows up at her office. “I don’t have time to ignore you, Jonah”, says her chief of staff Amy and then she turns around in the general direction of the other staffers and says, “Garry, could you please ignore Jonah for me?”
At another time a seriously ill and eventually dead senator is described as “mostly intravenous” as the chief of staff adds, “He has so many tubes, he looks like a set of bagpipes.” There is also this one, “Every minute that we delay, retard goes up in font size.” The R word, whose casual use is socially and culturally frowned upon in America, is also used once earlier in a much more unvarnished but hilarious fashion describing a staff member’s Twitter gaffe as “hoist by our own retard.”
The entire cast fits the mood perfectly, particularly Dreyfuss of Seinfeld fame, who carries off the easy profanity of her character with such abandon. It is interesting that of the four iconic Seinfeld characters, only Dreyfuss seems to have a highly successful post Seinfeld career. Her casting is pitch perfect.