Having repeatedly defended Girls, I find myself on the other side when it comes to HBO’s other big half-hour comedy launch, Veep, though I expect Veep to be much more popular; it’s got Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and she is terrific as always. (The fact that she never looks any different over the years has been so much commented on that she might be the natural successor to Dick Clark for “never-aging” and “vampire” jokes.) With Dreyfus starring and Armando Ianucci handling the creative side, the show is well put-together and has its share of funny lines and moments, like a bit in the second episode where Dreyfus and her staffers try to figure out where they can go to get a photo op were normal people, or “normals.” It’s just that when an episode is over, I’m not sure what the point of it was.
Luiza Savage did a great set-visit piece on this show, where she talked to Ianucci and other people involved, and found that they’re all a bit cynical about the workings of modern U.S. politics. Which is fine. Except that the cynicism makes the show feel, in a bizarre way, less realistic than The West Wing. That show was a fantasy, of course, but it portrayed political staffers as basically idealistic people with strong opinions about issues. Veep is more of a throwback to the traditional comedy idea of what Al Capp called the “Demmicans and the Republicrats,” where the parties are indistinguishable (it goes without saying that the parties aren’t identified) and people only care about petty things. The implication, then and now, is that no matter who you vote for, the real running of the government is going to be done by overgrown children who don’t care about getting anything done.
I say that The West Wing is more realistic because I think that if you look at political gridlock today, and the causes of it, you’ll often find that it’s caused by an increase in idealism, and more idealistic people working in government. In the U.S., there’s a lot of hand-wringing about gridlock and the inability of government to get anything done, but the reason for that is that ideology is more important than it ever was before. Republican representatives are more conservative than they ever were, and their staffers are more conservative still (the people assisting a politician are often going to be more idealistic than the politician, just like a court clerk may be the source of high-flown ideals in a decision). And conservative Democrats mostly disappeared before liberal Republicans did. The reason people can’t come together to get things done is that people have diametrically opposed views on issues, and they care about these issues (or their constituents do). The portrayal of a non-ideological political world seems like a bit of a throwback to the pre-West Wing ’90s, the “don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos” era.
A show doesn’t have to be realistic to be good, of course. and it doesn’t have to be ideological. But the attempt to avoid getting specific – to stick to issues that are not specific to one party, to avoid ideology as much as possible, to cut out party identification – may explain why the show feels a bit generic. Yes, Minister and Ianucci’s own The Thick of It (to which this is the unofficial trans-Atlantic successor) were also cynical, also avoided party identification (update: as noted in comments, the parties on The Thick of It were officially revealed in the Christmas special that aired after the first series) but they never felt like unfocused political comedy the way Veep does so far.
Maybe it’s a character issue. Yes, Minister gave us a cynical view of politics through the eyes of a protagonist who’s adjusting to this awful world, and so it had conflicts that transcended politics: the battle between Hacker and Humphrey, and their clash of worldviews, was at the centre of everything that happened. Dreyfus nails every moment she’s given as Selena Meyer; as she proved in Old Christine, no one is better at playing this particular kind of self-delusion. But what the character wants – except to be President – is not terribly clear. It’s not easy to make a compelling comic character out of an important public figure, who has to live most of his or her life in the spotlight; that’s why previous comedies of this nature, like Spin City and Benson, made the Mayor or Governor a supporting character and focused on a person who doesn’t lead as public a life. Veep is taking on the challenge of dealing with someone who can hardly ever say anything really “private,” even when the public can’t hear her. And I’m not sure that it’s met that challenge, because what drives Dreyfus’s character is hard to define.
A character who did meet this challenge, and an undoubted inspiration for Dreyfus’s Selena Meyer, is the lead of HBO’s greatest comedy, Larry Sanders. Selena, like Larry, can be seen as someone whose public role has swallowed up her inner life, and acts as kind of an escape from the messy details of having an inner life. (In the third episode, Dreyfus is standing in a room full of pictures of herself as her daughter asks her to “stop talking like a politician,” and of course she can’t.) But Larry was a well-defined character because his life and career were drawn from carefully-observed, realistic details; he was the kind of person the writers had known, and through the observational humour he became the kind of person we had known, even if we weren’t in show business. At least so far, Veep skates more on the surface of the character and her world. If Larry Sanders had just stuck to one simple, basic joke – that a showbiz personality who seems fun onscreen may be no fun in real life – it would be like a showbiz version of Veep. And that joke can be amusing, but I’m not sure yet if it’s amusing enough to follow every week.