Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a heartbeat from the presidency in HBO's new comedy series, Veep.
Sure, her workplace might lack the majesty and grandeur commonly ascribed to the Oval Office, but when Vice President Selina Meyer takes a seat behind her desk, she's ready to tackle the most important question of the day: "Has the president called?"
The answer is always, "No."
And that, essentially, is the comedic engine that drives HBO's Veep, a new series that plants Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine) in what is arguably one of the least understood and most ornamental jobs in American government. Meyer, who desperately wants to be as consequential in American life as Dick Cheney, will be lucky if she's remembered as a Dan Quayle.
Dreyfus plays Meyer as a tightly wound understudy who may never get her big break, a government functionary who wears two faces for almost everyone she meets and a bitter second banana who's too politically savvy to let her constant frustration ruin the day. This veep is not a dumb woman, but she is an inartful one — the kind of speechmaker whose off-hand remarks launch something called "Retard-Gate" as early as the pilot episode.
Though its landscape is quintessentially American, the series was dreamed up by foreign-born Oscar nominees Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, whose hilarious film In The Loop ripped U.S. and U.K. governmental relations to tatters in 2009. Veep is not as bold or as funny as that film — at least, not yet — but it has rich material to mine and a strong cast with which to do it.
As she navigates the halls that are kind of near the halls of power, Vice President Meyer is supported by strident Chief-of-Staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky, of My Girl and In the Loop), beleaguered Press Secretary Mike (Matt Walsh, of Hung), and overzealous body man Gary (Tony Hale, of Arrested Development), and is tasked with tackling big issues like "the cornstarch utensils campaign" and the signing of a condolence card for a Washington widow.
She barely manages either of these trivial responsibilities, by the way.
This vice president (and the executive under which she serves) belongs to no discernible political party and has no particular position on, well, anything. That lack of specificity, unfortunately, makes some of Veep's comedy feel toothless and scattershot. The show's jokes range from very good ("When a sexual harasser dies, we sign his wife's card! That's how Washington works!") to very lame ("of all the ochres, she's the medi-est"), but the characters all bounce off of each other nicely, and with the kind of thinly veiled loathing that points toward promising stories in the future.
By this episode's end, the veep's office politics have been further complicated by the hiring of Dan Egan, a smooth-talking backstabber poached from a snooty senator, and by the machinations of Jonah, the low-level White House staffer who, because he works "on the mountaintop," holds more power than all of Selina's support staff combined. As a pilot episode, "Fundraiser" is more clever than laugh-out-loud funny, but it does an admirable job of setting the table for bigger laughs down the road.
During her own race for the vice presidential slot, real-life Governor Sarah Palin famously wondered, "What is it that the V.P. does every day?" Veep might not do much to answer that question, but it will at the very least offer intelligent entertainment, no matter what your political stripe.
Images courtesy of HBO