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Second-Banana Blues

Veep, cringe comedy, and laughing at Washington so you don’t cry

MAY 13, 2014 by MICHAEL NOLAN

Political beliefs are great at ruining dinners, holidays, and family gatherings. In the Washington, D.C., of TV show Veep, they can ruin your career. And even at best, they—to say nothing of a conscience—are irrelevant.

The show’s creator, Armando Iannucci, doesn’t waste our time with fraught meditations on whether it should be this way. Just keeping up with how it is occupies more than enough time and throws out more than enough opportunities for comedy. This is why he’s playing a different—and better—game than nearly every other fictionalizer of our Bizarro Olympus. 

In this version of D.C., the meaning of whatever anyone does or says is determined after the fact, by the context it meets and how it affects the pursuit of and will to power. And it is always subject to revision. That is to say, almost all of the characters (crucially, though, not 100 percent) seem to have literally no selves inside their suits; they are the servants of power, the chief (maybe the only) virtue here.

So far, so what? Literally every show and movie about Washington makes this point. Veep stands out, especially among the power porn that generally defines Washington shows and movies, for using power as a setup for slapstick. And then Veep plays it deadpan, letting bits and jokes build on each other in the same way that every faux pas and errant bit of candor quickly metastasizes until it feels like Godzilla is marching up the Potomac.

That’s not to say, for all the His Girl Friday verbal ping-pong, that everything here is harmless and goofy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer—the veep in question—generally winds up as the butt of every joke. Or at least the big ones, played by fate. When she declares occasionally that “I am the Vice President of the United States of America,” it sounds even more like a punchline than pulling rank inherently does anyway. But everyone has to clam up when she says that, particularly those who spend all day feverishly tending an image that not even Selina remotely buys. There are stakes. And for all the foibles, Selina can and will—like anyone with enough rank—destroy you. The threat of destruction and the promise of one day wielding that power drives everything else, from everyone else. You laugh because otherwise the horror is unbearable.

And it also appears to be inescapable, even setting aside that nearly every character here makes his or her own life miserable (or worth living—being a perverse bunch, I doubt even they can tell the difference) as a matter of choice. They all choose to live in and accept the terms of this world. If they didn’t, there’d always be plenty of others willing to take their places, even at the bottom of the totem pole, where all the whippings are handed out.

For example, one of Selina’s nemeses, an Ohio senator named Roger Furlong (played by Dan Bakkedahl, simultaneously starring in FXX’s Legit as an entirely different, half-decent kind of schmuck), manages to be as blatantly moronic as he is loathesome, and almost more vulgar than anyone else. And he relies entirely on his personal aide to complete most of his obscene neologisms, particularly when he wishes to insult said aide. That guy takes it and completes the punchlines. The fact that they’re usually still pretty ham-handed and almost always unwarranted actually adds to the hilarity. Though be forewarned: This isn’t the belly-laugh kind of hilarity; it’s closer to a near-desperate hysteria.

Point being, neither of these guys has to be here, even if Furlong—like everyone else on top—is the one who looks like he’s no good for anything else.

You don’t have to be awful to work here, but it helps

This point matters, because it limits the amount of sympathy you can extend to any member of the cast. It’s a reminder that everyone here is getting something out of all of this, so how bad can their suffering really be?

The insularity of the Washington depicted here allows the show to keep its focus on relative merit rather than straying into the weeds of broad moral profundity. Expecting this out of people who want careers in politics is what got us here in the first place, after all. Nobody’s “good,” and it’s not clear that “bad” matters here, either. When someone from (more or less) outside this world pops up and says, “You people are monsters,” there’s a pause in which you can more or less see the thought bubbles above everyone else’s heads: Monsters? This guy thinks that matters?

I don’t think for a second that anyone on the show meant that “monsters” comment as an applause line. I don’t even really think it’s a punchline. It’s one of the occasional whiffs of real life that throws this world’s insanity into sharp relief.

What’s more, I was thinking the same thing as the other characters, and it was uncomfortable to realize. But I couldn't help chuckling in admiration that the writers and cast had made me one of them.

And some people still don’t think of comedy as art.

Probably my favorite line thus far comes near the end of the second season. The context doesn’t really matter; just get a load of this: "There's going to be difficult choices to make, like Sophie's Choice choices, except more important because they're gonna be about me," Selina tells an aide. That line nearly knocked me out my chair. The way Louis-Dreyfus delivers it—and the way everyone else doesn’t react to it—is why they get to be actors and the rest of us don’t.  

That line would be, if someone really meant it, a pretty lousy thing to say and a worse thing to believe. But it’s often a mistake to assume a one-to-one relationship between what’s said and what’s meant; here, it always is. At their least cringe-worthy, these kinds of lines come across as a kind of ritual commiseration, like smart, articulate, harried people handing off a gag gift that’s been making the rounds for decades, but putting a creative, novel touch to the wrapping first. At their worst, they’re unprintable here, but usually still also funny. In every case, they’re transgressive in at least one way. Sooner or later, whoever you are, they’re going to find one that steps on your toes, too.

Mr. Snark goes to Washington

What I’m grateful for is that show brings cringe comedy into Washington. Veep doesn’t really belong in the same category as shows like Scandal or House of Cards, or even the long-suffering, martyred, back-patting that’s made Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert into, essentially, one-trick ponies (I mean, that’s not a fatal flaw—AC/DC and the Ramones are both one-trick ponies, too). That inures it from the unseemly power-fetishization that drips from everything you hear about the Underwoods.

But cringe comedy—the domain of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, which includes the principality of Larry David—usually has a longevity problem. No matter how brilliantly it’s written, directed, and acted, it gets exhausting if it plays only that note. Even after it stopped just remaking UK episodes with different accents, the U.S. version of The Office remained inferior to the original for much the same reason it was able to earn a far longer run: the probably crazy but also probably crucial belief that everyone’s fundamental decency means things will—and should—work out okay for them in the end. David and company figured out a better way around the cringe problem starting with the second season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Merchant’s current project, Hello, Ladies, hasn’t yet, so you barely get a chance to enjoy it before you have to turn away.

Veep has come up with a solution to this problem that’s entirely its own. Maybe it’s the sheer strength of the ensemble cast. Maybe it’s the occasional reminders that there are real stakes here and at least some of the characters are aware of them (Selina seems genuinely shaken when a hostage-rescue mission she gave the green light to mainly for political capital costs a soldier his leg). Or maybe it’s the sense of a vast, chaotic complexity within nearly all of the characters: When Selina’s daughter shows up and calls bullshit, Selina works her like any other opponent. When her daughter just wants a mother, you can all but see Selina calculating how to “win” this situation in one eye while, in the other, a donnybrook rages between her conflicted desires, a suspicion she might not be up to it, and something that looks a lot like guilt—and the ever-present need to deal with the current crisis. She always manages to disappoint, Selina does. But always in a new way.

Or maybe it’s just that nobody ever wins or really seems to lose, either. The show doesn’t fall into the trap of imagining a fantasy Washington where justice is served and the world is set right again. That said, for all that Veep’s world suits my biases just fine, it does feel from time to time like it’s trotting out one inside joke after another, mainly just showing the types that plague Washington—but that even the creators ultimately find worth putting up with. Or maybe real Washington people are more types than people anyway. This show won’t really help you sort it out.

If it was shooting for sheer realism, that might be a problem. But it would also dilute the comedy. It’s better this way, where power hovers and looms, but never truly alights. It’s as if everyone had the exact same floater in their eyes; the more they try to focus on it, the more elusive it becomes. But as far as they’re concerned, there’s nothing else worth looking at. 

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MICHAEL NOLAN

Michael Nolan is the managing editor of The Freeman

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