It’s been six years since Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” had many of us eagerly awaiting our weekly dose of presidential politics. Love it or hate it, Sorkin’s version of the inner workings of the presidency made an impact. For some, it was what politics should be. For others, it was pure fantasy. Whatever your view, the show’s earnest and optimistic image of public servants was a refreshing change from the notion of the corrupt politician. Its signature “walk and talk” style where characters had fast-paced, clever conversations while moving through the corridors of power gave otherwise dry policy discussions an appealing energy. Sorkin’s version of government was meant to inspire.
HBO’s new comedy “Veep” will probably not inspire you but it will make you laugh. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Selina Meyer, the well meaning vice president who, along with her equally well meaning but bumbling staff, is trying to navigate the stormy seas of Washington politics without sinking. Selina wants to be an agent of change in perhaps the most ineffectual political office in the American government. It’s a good set-up for laughs and Louis-Dreyfus puts her talent for physical comedy to good use. In the pilot episode, Selina pushes for a cornstarch utensil initiative only to find that the plastics industry is a powerful lobby and her cornstarch spoon bends when she uses it to stir her coffee. Louis-Dreyfus’ reaction hits the mark as does her frustrated hand-waving whisper/scream of “What the f*#k!” when she finds out a member of her staff made a mistake that will embarrass her.
Working for Selina are her Chief of Staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky), personal aide Gary (Tony Hale), Director of Communications Mike (Matt Walsh) and Deputy Director of Communications Dan (Reid Scott). They try to be sharp political operatives but are routinely exposed as rookies. In other words, they are the B-Team in a world of pros. But like most B-teams, they are a likeable group because their mistakes and the efforts they make to fix them come with the best intentions. When Amy accidentally signs her name instead of Selina’s on a condolence card for the widow of a recently deceased senator, Gary tries to get the card back from the president’s aide. There is nothing stealth about Gary’s efforts at retrieval but it’s not slapstick or overplayed. It’s subtle and expected. He gets caught in a matter of seconds. Yet, it’s funny because it’s such a non-event.
Where “Veep” struggles is in its characterization of Selina. I’m not sure it’s believable that she would have such a soft touch having survived politics long enough to make it to the office of the vice president. But “Veep” works because Louis-Dreyfus makes you forget about this type of criticism. When she asks her secretary if the president called, she answers her own question. She already knows and this is what makes her interpretation of being an afterthought in the world of Washington politics simply fun to watch.
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