‘Veep’: High Heels and Yoghurt with an H
I have to confess I’m having some scary revelations about myself as I ditch movies for the rest of the summer and delve into TV. For instance, I don’t see anything wrong with anti-heroes Walt from Breaking Bad or Dr. House from House M.D., which I have only recently started watching despite the fact it is eight seasons old. I think they’re not only completely relatable, but absolutely right, from their behavior under the circumstances they are put in, to the things they say and the way they say them. But when I read comments on forums, many people consider these guys to be arrogant, egotistical, utterly lacking in humility or sensitivity. I think I even read somewhere that House is supposed to be autistic. To wit, when we were considering Hugh Laurie for a role in something I was working on, a producer said, “You know, he plays that crazy doctor on House.” How puzzling. Worse: how troubling that I don’t see them that way at all.
Oh, well. Despicable as they may be to most people, they are still the protagonists of popular, intelligent TV dramas, so there must be something relatable about them to other people, too, although the fact they are both middle-aged and have physical challenges—House walks with a cane, and Walt has cancer—makes me wonder what needs to happen to me before I finally become as relatable and popular as they are.
The same could be said about Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character Selina Meyer in HBO’s painfully funny new half-hour comedy Veep. As the hapless Vice-President of the United States, it comes as no surprise that Selina is neglected by the POTUS himself and enjoys an historic sixty-eight percent disapproval rating. Almost more so than Walt or Dr. House, she’s delightfully despicable: spoiled, capricious, imperious, insensitive, Machiavellian in the most ridiculous, desperate ways. She’s that annoying authority figure whose effigy people throw darts at, the clown they delight dunking at the state fair. But what makes her and the show itself such a wicked pleasure is Selina is, again, so real and relatable. Despite the fact she spends ninety percent of the time in near broad-comedy situations—there’s even an homage to the uncontrollable-diarrhea scene from Bridesmaids in the second episode—it’s that other ten percent, when Selina becomes the stern, savvy politician, that Louis-Dreyfus secures your buy-in.
She owes a lot of this to Sarah Palin, otherwise we might never allow Selina as a plausible character; it would be too ludicrous. The show’s creators have gone to great pains to distance Selina from Palin; the former is clearly a liberal, a single woman, and not nearly as underinformed and mendacious as the latter. But the shrewd and unpopular MILF-as-blindly-ambitious-politician underscores both women, and it is on that mnemonic that this fine caricature is built.
I said at the end of a post about HBO’s The Newsroom last week, “I’ve already started watching Veep, and I’m laughing! I rarely laugh at American comedy.” It turns out Veep is just a British show with an American accent — it is created by the Italian-named but distinctly British Armando Ianucci, who was responsible for the show that launched Steve Coogan, I’m Alan Partridge, and In the Loop, a movie about the cabinet members of a Tony Blair-like Prime Minister as they bumble through Washington concocting ways to start a war in the Middle East by cooking up a fake dossier on weapons of mass destruction. If you take to Veep as much as I have, I heartily recommend watching its progenitor Loop at some point. The plot twists, the dialogue, the characterizations are dazzling and breathtaking, enough to turn me green with envy when I was watching it. No matter how much news I read, I simply don’t have the breadth of knowledge to write material like that.
“You’re really very funny, for an American,” a British producer once said to me after reading a couple of my scripts that had comedic elements in them (I’ve never written a flat-out comedy). “And I mean that as a compliment.” Of course, I took it as a backhanded compliment and was a little sore as a result, but the more I familiarized myself with modern British television comedy compared with American, the more I understood what she meant. It has nothing to do with whether American comedy is funnier than British, which is entirely cultural and subjective, but more to do with the fact I had a British grammar school education and my mother is Australian. All of this is to say that what I perceive to be a general British viewpoint in Veep makes me appreciate it more than, say, Seinfeld or Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which makes me squirm more than laugh.
One of the conceits that makes In The Loop so clever in terms of perspective distortion is that these self-important British politicians—foremost among them Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed Alastair Campbell character—are treated so contemptuously by their American counterparts when they are in Washington. Power is relative, especially if you’re dealing with the White House, which is, relatively speaking, omnipotent. It’s as if the Yanks have no idea where the United Kingdom is or why it exists in the first place. Capaldi finds himself jumping through hoops just to get to the right meetings, forget trying to advance his nefarious agenda or cover up his colleagues’ blunders. The exact same device is repeated in Veep: Not only does the President never call Selina, she is so marginalized she has to fill her afternoons going for yoghurt tastings (and, yes, the yoghurt with an H is added for emphasis, this after the entire staff holds a focus-group meeting for the politically correct flavor).
As I write this and I think of think of Veep, the scene that leaps to mind is of Selina running from the Vice-President’s office in the Eisenhower Building across the lawn to the West Wing in her stockinged feet, heels in hand, secret service agents jogging behind her, having finally snapped over being constantly ignored by the President, and she’ll be damned if she misses his fiscal-responsibility meeting. It plays like a GIF/meme in a loop in my mind. (I just giggled so hard my laptop almost fell off my belly). It’s not just the absurdity of the situation, or the irrelevance of a fiscal-responsibility meeting, it’s the high heels, which Selina is continually removing and putting on again in an eloquent gestural statement of the many challenges women face competing in such a macho world.
As a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook about Veep and The Newsroom, “It’s a blast to watch them both simultaneously.” Indeed, there is a Rashomon effect to doing that, which I would highly recommend. While one is a comedy that is often so painful it’s tragic, and the other a drama speckled with moments of true hilarity, they are two sides of the same coin, which highlight the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the journalists who cover them.
It’s great to see HBO rebounding with both shows. They are so timely now in this election year when what is going on in real life can seem so much stranger, and comical, than fiction. I’m just wondering why they stopped at eight episodes. Or is that just the way of British TV?