Veep is one of the best shows on television. There’s an old cliche of fiction that ideas are boring while sex and explosions are not. Entertaining writers focus on the latter, well-intentioned thinkers the former, but great writers wrap the two all up together into a juicy ball that blows your mind while it knocks your socks off right over the curled toes. The catch of course is that it’s easy to conflate boredom with depth and dismiss truly brilliant works because they do the entertaining side so well that the ideas all are absorbed by osmosis. Veep is hilarious, but the best insults on television actually distract from the fact that it’s cutting to the bone of politics at the same time.
We laugh at Veep, yes. But it’s a sadness-tinged laughter because underneath we hate what these people are doing and who they are. We hate that they are the cancer eating out the center of the optimistic promise at the heart of democracy. These political sociopaths don’t care about a single issue on its own merits, all they care about is getting that next vote, electoral junkies. The show is hilarious, but it’s that desperate laughter of the passengers of a sinking ship realizing that the captain doesn’t know the difference between the rudder and the sail.
But though it’s laughter wrapped around a core of nihilism, there’s another more subtle layer too, one of hope and triumph.
I once wrote that West Wing worked on a certain level as a political horror story, because it displayed all of the game-playing, but had deeply empathetic, good people doing it. Which meant it also functioned as a horror show, because the implication underneath was to imagine what horror would be wrought by game-players who weren’t good and honest people.
Veep functions on the other side of that same coin. It shows a completely bankrupt system in which the game of politics is all that’s left, in which all of the ideology and policy is just gilding on the hollow shell. And we can laugh at it because the people playing the game, while being terrible people, are also so deeply incompetent that we can laugh at them. It’s Always Sunny with nuclear launch codes.
And here’s where the optimism comes back into play. People have been bemoaning the lies of politics since the beginning of time, but it’s only in modern democracies that we have made a high art form of it. We have set up a system that you can only win by playing a game, and then preach in righteous fury against those who play exactly that game. They lie and cheat and steal, and ultimately every decision is guided by how they think it will play out on talk radio, and whether it’ll net them a handful more or less votes. And while we hate them for it, we also reward them for it.
This isn’t a plea for you to vote for some third party dude who can’t hack it in the big leagues. This isn’t even a criticism of the system that has produced this strange hypocrisy of demanding truth while rewarding lies. No, this is a plea for you to love the system the way it is.
An incestuous group of out-of-touch rich elites runs this country. Guess what? Every country in human history has been the same way. Yes, even the communist ones. Massacring the last elites and putting in new ones doesn’t change that base fact. You can design the system however you want, and after the dust settles, a group of elites will be running everything. Because no matter what game you set up to determine power, by nature of being a game, there’s going to end up being players who play the game better than everyone else.
Did you want your leaders to tell you the truth? Try a dictatorship, because for all their lies, dictators always will tell you the truth about the things that really matter. They’ll not dance around the issue, not carefully construct poll-tested responses to questions to avoid actually saying anything. This isn’t a political phenomenon, it’s a human one: we only really lie to the ones we either love or need. It’s strangers who care nothing for you who will tell you what they really believe and the hell with whether you like it.
But here’s the difference, the message of hope in all of the cynicism underlying the humor of Veep. We might have a group of elites holding all the power, and none of them really might care much about any of the political issues we live and die on, but that’s not any different than the Romans and a hundred others before us. The difference is that we matter enough that they lie to us. They need us because of those pesky ballots we cast by the millions.
Every four years we make them dance for us like circus monkeys, dressed up in tuxedos with fake little toothy smiles. That monkey doesn’t want to dance, but it doesn’t fling shit because it wants those delicious scraps of peanuts that we throw at the one that dances hardest.
Tomorrow night is the first presidential primary debate, and all the Republican contenders to the throne will get up on Fox News and piss the crap out of half the country while the other half squeals in joy at the talking points.
But don’t get mad, and don’t get your blood up. Just throw some peanuts at your television screen. Dance monkey, dance.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.