The opening credits for HBO’s new comedy, “Veep,” last only 10 seconds, but the quick series of images and fake headlines about politician Selina Meyer sum up the position of vice president of the U.S. perfectly: It isn’t anyone’s first choice. No one sets out to be in second place — to be the one who has to sit behind the president during The State of the Union, or be stuck working in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House instead of in the West Wing. The VP really is just around to break ties in the U.S. Senate and succeed the president if necessary. That’s it. (Granted, we are talking about most VPs, not Dick Cheney and his Shadow Government.) But the second spot on a ticket is better than no spot at all, and the credits’ depiction of Selina’s trajectory from hopeful candidate to disappointed candidate to thrilled-to-be-included-in-a-new-way candidate sets up the series perfectly: She is important, but not that important, and she knows it. “Veep” focuses on this second-fiddle aspect of the job brilliantly, focusing on the absurdity of politics and how Washington is its own muggy, tourist-infested middle school. Everyone wants to sit at the cool kids’ table and will go to great lengths to get there. This isn’t “The West Wing”; there’s no room for grand speeches and faith in a Sorkian government. “Veep,” created by Armando Iannucci (In The Loop), is closer to NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” only minus the sweetness and plus plenty of cursing. It answers the ridiculousness of American politics with ridiculousness, and only two episodes in, it already is one of the better comedies on TV.
Selina isn’t entirely typical of present-day politicians, however; a divorced single mother obviously has never held such high an office in the U.S. And forget pantsuits: She sports Louboutin pumps and Dior dresses, showing off a toned body a la Michelle Obama, whose own much-celebrated fashion sense serves as inspiration for the character. It all helps paint the picture of a modern, powerful woman, and likewise as the star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus commands attention. With an acute knack for physical comedy, as Selina she alternates between sailing and bumbling through her daily routine of trying to make her position matter in the political world and asking her executive assistant Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) if the president has called. (The answer is always “No.”) We never meet the president and according to interviews Louis-Dreyfus has given, we never will. Nor do we know which party they are in, and it doesn’t matter. It’s all one big game, and Selina would have to suck up to Senators, back down from initiatives if she’s told to by the president’s people and go out and kiss babies and taste “yoghurt” — the kind of stuff the president largely gets to skip now that he’s in office — no matter which side of the aisle she was from.
She at least is trying to make her positive relevant, pushing for clean jobs and filibuster reform. Her staff keeps her moving and often b.s.-ing her way through activities, namely personal aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale, giving a only slightly toned-down variation of his role as Buster on “Arrested Development”), chief of staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) and assistant to the VP and director of communications Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh). It’s all they can do to keep things running somewhat smoothly and avoid physically harming other politicos such as Jonah Ryan, the White House liaison who stops by to gloat about his West Wing access. Dan Egan (Reid Scott), the quintessential Washington opportunist, worms his way into the inner circle to become deputy assistant to the VP and deputy communications director, and a past relationship with Amy and Mike’s general dislike for him inspire plenty of ire — but so do most things in their world. Selina may still harbor some romantic notions about politics, but her self-interest always takes precedence. Everyone else is too stressed out by the job for a starry-eyed view — there are too many fires to put out, such as when Amy accidentally signed her own name to a condolence card to a instead of forging Selina’s. How they go about resolving such issues is what makes the show watchable; the silliness keeps the tone from turning negative.
Likewise, the chemistry between the players and their respective deliveries keeps the show light, from Hale’s only a slightly toned-down variation of his role as Buster from “Arrested Development” to Walsh’s deadpanned hostility. All hilariously bounce off each other and ultimately support Louis-Dreyfus who, again, demonstrates why she’s a lead player. When Selina hears the president is having chest pains and that she is needed in the situation room, Louis-Dreyfus does her best to keep her face serious while fighting off a power-hungry smile. (Seen in this trailer at about 1:15.) Her Selina is both smart and clueless, both in and out of control of her position, and putting the character somewhere in between extremes is a smart choice for Iannucci. She’s neither Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin; she hovers somewhere in the middle, enough to keep you wondering how she actually got to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. It’s realistic because, as we can forget, politicians are people. They aren’t all necessarily deserving of the power they have, but they have it regardless, and the competitiveness of the game often leads to absurdity. What better way to depict it than with, well, absurdity?
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba.