Any savvy television viewer who knows Armando Iannucci’s brilliant, rambling, angry, profanity-spewing British series The Thick of It must have been pleading for his 2007 American remake at ABC to slip quietly into forgotten history.
Luckily, it did. The political-comedy pilot — Iannucci hated it — wasn’t picked up, and in 2009 Iannucci instead gave the world In the Loop, a movie version of his original series. Not that anyone saw that, either.
Which is a shame. Imagine an even funnier, infinitely angrier and less sentimental Aaron Sorkin. Iannucci shares Sorkin’s love of fast-talking characters and quick-cutting camerawork. More, he’s a sublime political-comedy scientist who mixes swearing, anger and yelling with intelligence and cynicism, as well as vicious wit that floats to the top when the level of discourse calms down. Iannucci’s actors are like soldiers sent in to kill weak or sweet comedy. Not everybody can do that, especially at a network.
STORY: HBO's 'Veep' Tackles a Flawed, Dangerous Political System
Veep stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as former Sen. Selina Meyer, who accepts the vice presidential duty and regrets it almost immediately: She has no real power and gets muscled by the Senate, Congress and the (so-far-unseen) president, who delegates all the truly crappy jobs to her. Louis-Dreyfus has found perhaps her best post-Seinfeld role and takes to it with such fervor — the constant swearing, the barely veiled desire to become president, the unhappy give-and-take with other politicians and a delightful disdain for average citizens — that you can’t help but applaud what is clearly an Emmy-worthy effort.
Her work alone makes Veep a gem, but there’s even more to like. Meyer’s team includes chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky of In the Loop), tasked to put out endless fires; right-hand-and-body man Gary (Tony Hale of Arrested Development), who basically lives on the veep’s shoulders whispering tidbits in her ear about people she meets: “Wife, not daughter; wife, not daughter!” “Plays the trumpet.” “He’s got a glass eye”); jaded-and-losing-it press spokesman Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh), who pretends to have a dog so he won’t have to stay late at the office or go on boring trips (everyone calls the dog a bullshitzu); Dan (Reid Scott), an ambitious political operative who one-ups everyone; office secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw), who keeps the plates spinning and doesn’t suffer fools or obvious questions; and Jonah (Tim Simons), the slimy and arrogant White House liaison who lords his position and proximity to the president over everyone in the vice president’s office.
Every actor nails their lines, which keeps Veep moving at a brisk pace. In fact, the episodes seem to end so quickly, you’ll wish they lasted an hour. Iannucci hasn’t quite created a character as momentously awesome as The Thick of It’s angry, foul-mouthed buzzsaw Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), but Veep hits on all cylinders, even with small roles such as that of the senator who swats down a trial balloon from the veep’s office by saying, “I imagine I’d mix ape-shit with bat-shit, raise it to a whole new level of fury, and then I’d probably rip your face off and use your eye sockets as a sex toy.”
STORY: HBO Schedules 'Veep,' 'Game Change'
The show is particularly adept at getting at the back-stabbing, bureaucracy-laden, vote-swapping hustle that is politics and mines as much comedy as possible from every bit. Madame Vice President, for example, is quite skilled at the fake “walk and talk,” where her staff whisks her into the hallway, followed by angry politicians who can’t catch her (one adaptation is the “widow walk,” where Meyer uses a dead senator’s wife as a shield from angry aides and lobbyists).
Louis-Dreyfus manages to capture all of the disparate parts of Meyer’s personality. Those include her no-muffler love of swearing, even when she talks about voters: “I’ve met some people. Real people. And a lot of ’em are f---ing idiots.” And her insecurity, played up in a recurring joke in which she asks her secretary, “Sue, did the president call?” He never calls. Louis-Dreyfus also pulls off what others might mangle: a clear disinterest in her college-age daughter (not in a mean way, but her political career comes first). Where others might opt for the comic cliche of overcompensating with gushing attention when the daughter visits, Louis-Dreyfus makes it another day at the office for Meyer, who mostly ignores her child.
In that sense, Louis-Dreyfus finds herself in another comedy where Larry David’s Seinfeld mantra “No hugging, no learning” aptly applies. For Iannucci, Veep is just different enough from The Thick of It and In the Loop to not be seen as a remake but a fresh shot at the ripe target of American politics. As in his previous work, there’s an improvisational feel, though the show is scripted. A shaky-camera effect makes the hustle-bustle more naturalistic and the hilarious, impromptu veep conferences seem intimate — and desperate. Most important, Veep looks as if it’s being filmed right next to the real thing and as if Iannucci and his writers are simply mirroring the ineptness and soul-crushing compromises around them.