Arts Desk

Veep, Week 1: Shitheads, Fucktards, and Doogie Fucking Howser

In which Arts Desk and DCist discuss Veep, HBO's new comedy about the vice presidency

I think you're right, Ben: Veep doesn't quite have its own Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Scot who spewed glorious blue all over Armando Iannucci's In the Thick of It and In the Loop. ("Let them eat cocks!" went one classic line. Another: "Fuckety-bye!") But Veep also has no dearth of creative profanity—it spreads it among the strong ensemble cast—and it's easy to imagine the show attempting to top itself week after week. Some of the debut episode's highlights: "Don't tell me what to do, Doogie fucking Howser!";  "Redact your fucking face!"; a lengthy dissection of the term "shithead"; and most memorably, "Hoisted by your own retard."

That phrase—first uttered in private by a senator—is what gets Julia Louis-Dreyfus' title character, Selina Meyer, into deep, um, do-do. It's about three-quarters into the episode when she repeats the quip in front of a room of reporters after a presidential aide has redacted the vast bulk of her prepared speech, moments before she has to give it. Where gaping character flaws and trivial plays of power impact matters of global significance in In the Loop—the invasion of a country, say—in Iannucci's new exploration of Washington culture, dumb shit begets only more dumb shit: A junior aide's ill-considered tweet about biodegradable dining utensils lands Selina in hot water with the plastics industry; later, her on-mic gaffe means she must chum up to groups advocating for the mentally disabled. ("Utensils are politicized," we're told.) When an elderly senator passes away, all admit he was a sexual creep; still, Selina must sign a card to the widow. Selina instructs her chief-of-staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) to fake her signature—only, when Amy accidentally writes her own name, the office has to scramble to retrieve the condolence note. Selina, punching and kicking the air, dispatches her genial but incompetent body man Gary (Arrested Development's Tony Hale, excellent) to deal with it. Says Selina: "I am busy apologizing to that fucktard!"—the advocate for the mentally disabled who's waiting in her office.

Veep is, as lots of critics have said, a show about power centered on individuals who do not have it. Selina, once a senator who washed out in her party's presidential primary (which party, we know not), now occupies the position where she can do the least damage. "Did the president call?" she asks her secretary at least twice. (The Oval Office is not calling.) A senator's soulless young aide manipulates his way into Selina's employ—clearly, it's his temporary ticket to the top. The vice president's spokesman (Matt Walsh), meanwhile, is an unambitious lifer; he'd pull an all-nighter to fix the "hoist the retard" imbroglio, but he's got to tend to his dog. We occasionally see characters conniving against each other, but for the most part, they're doing battle against their own slip-ups and trying to keep them out of the day's news cycle.

In other words, this might be the most cynical depiction of executive-branch worker bees we've yet seen, but what sells Veep isn't just the crass humor—although it is very funny—but the tempo. The show contains plenty of walk-and-talk sequences—I'm not trying to tweak your hatred of Sorkiniana, Ben—but Veep's camera is shakier, its pacing much more manic. In fact, the only still shot I remember from last night is the one with which you lead your review—of Selina, alone in her office, spinning in her chair. I think that's key. We're not seeing a portrait of a dysfunctional system, but a highly functional one: The mechanism for quarantining Selina from the gears of power is meaningless micro-crisis after meaningless micro-crisis, all of it adding up to more nothing. Selina, who's aimless but not an idiot, can cause tiny ripples that might embarrass the presidency, but at the end of the day her contribution—positive or negative—is marginal. Veep is basically a show about busy work.

Some lingering thoughts: Like a lot of comedies without laugh tracks, Veep sometimes trades in the humor of extended discomfort, especially when it slows down. Clearly, Iannucci plans to spend a lot of time torturing his protagonist, but if the show's central conceit is that all of these power games are essentially meaningless, I wonder if all the laughing at Selina will lose some mileage by the end of the eight-episode season.

As for the D.C. connection: On an aesthetic level, I'm not bothered that Veep did so little shooting in D.C. The Washington Selina Meyer inhabits is not the one you or I inhabit—nor is it necessarily the one that Joe Biden inhabits. Though I bet the Washington Post's Style editors were pleased that last night's episode included a fake section (headline: "Contrite Veep Eats Her Words").

Is there a point to Veep's hamster-wheel insanity, other than that there is no point? What do you think of Selina—both as our slightly bumbling tour guide to federal culture, and as a character? What will next week's most inventive use of the word "fuck" be?

For now, keep on spinning.

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  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Is this a big *ucking deal?

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