HBO's new political comedy "Veep" has a lot of great talent associated with it, including series creator Armando Iannucci, best known for his blistering British satire "The Thick of It," and Julia Louis-Dreyfus headlining as Vice President Selina Meyer. It was also great to see Tony Hale in the cast as Gary, in a not un-Buster-Bluth-like role as one of Meyer's aides, and Anna Chlumsky as Meyer's frequently stressed-out Chief of Staff. "Veep" is certainly in the vein of "The Thick of It," and its follow-up film "In the Loop," following a group of minor government staffers dealing with the day-to-day aggravations of politics and bureaucracy, where everything feels like it could be a matter of life and death, but rarely is. There is an epic rant delivered with copious amounts of swearing over a mistake on a condolence card. A public relations kerfuffle is triggered by a badly worded tweet, and exacerbated by an off-color joke, told when Meyer is forced to improvise a last-minute speech.
There are plenty of good, biting moments in a solid pilot, but something feels a little off. I think the creators of "Veep" put unnecessary limitations on themselves, refusing to identify whether Meyer is a Republican or Democrat, and never showing the president. This removes a lot of opportunity for more pointed, more cutting criticism of the American political system. Here, the idea is that Meyer is the next in line to power, but it's always frustratingly out of her reach. This is nicely embodied in the character of Jonah, (Timothy Simons), the self-important White House liaison who everyone in Meyer's office dislikes and mocks mercilessly. However, Jonah actually has more power than Meyer, as he represents the White House, and can upend her schedule and censor her speeches on a whim. However, this makes everything going on in Meyer's sphere feel less important and consequential. There are no moments of supreme discomfort, as there were in "The Thick of It," when you realize that the vindictive, petty, squabbling government toadies are actually responsible for very big policy decisions.
Instead, "Veep" concerns itself primarily with futility. Meyer is under tremendous scrutiny and immediately accountable for every move she makes, but her role as Vice POTUS affords her little actual clout. Her agenda is pushing for green jobs, but she quickly learns that she has to stay on the right side of Big Plastic, and by proxy Big Oil, to avoid being shunned by Capitol Hill. She's called to fill in for the president at an events, but not allowed to say anything. Her staffers, who also include Director of Communications Mike (Mike Walsh), executive assistant Sue (Sufe Bradshaw), and the newly hired Dan (Reid Scott), are a familiar collection of your usual workplace types, who interact much in the same way as the guys over on "The Office," except with more profanities flying around. Nobody romanticizes civil service, the way "The West Wing" would occasionally, and Meyer is all too aware of the limitations of her job. She hires Dan because he's a ruthless bastard who nobody likes, and she needs one of those on her side.
At this point the cast is still in the process of finding its footing, and the writers still seem to be working out how much they can get away with. It doesn't feel quite fully formed yet, but I can see "Veep" improving considerably over the course of its run, and it's already a very entertaining watch. Julia Louis Dreyfus is excellent, as an ambitious career politician who finds herself surrounded by idiots, and will not hesitate to use them to form a literal human shield around herself. I could watch whole episodes of the other characters simply sitting around and insulting each other with Iannucci and Simon Blackwell's never-ending supply of quips, burns, and takedowns. The show exhibits a good grasp on the current political culture, and it's the little details and smaller observations that get the biggest laughs. However, I think it's going to take a few more weeks to see what shape "Veep" ultimately settles into. I was hoping for more cynical, more timely, and more critical material, but that may not be on the agenda.
And that may not be a bad thing. Iannucci and his crew have already done "The Thick of It" and "In the Loop." This time around, they're taking a different approach to a different political system, and making a different kind of show, something sadder and more humiliating. And I want to see where they're going with this.