Here’s a small confession: I didn’t watch any of the Republican National Convention last month. For all the hysterical buildup about what was supposed to be the greatest political show on Earth, when the moment finally came, I decided I just couldn’t take four days of vulgar, hateful narcissism posing as American leadership.
So, instead, I watched all five seasons of Veep.
I know: It was a good week for irony all around.
For reasons that escape me, I hadn’t previously indulged a single episode of HBO’s hit political sitcom. Now that I’ve seen all of them, my only regret is that there aren’t several hundred more to tide me over until the end of the next administration.
During the Clinton and Bush eras—Bill and George W., that is—we had an exemplary TV show called The West Wing to assure us—perhaps in vain—that the men and women in the executive branch got into public service for all the right reasons and, despite their flaws, were essentially intelligent, decent people.
Now, in our own time, we have Veep—another fictionalized look at the inner workings of the federal government—which argues that the folks in the upper echelons of power are there for all the wrong reasons and are essentially rotten, vindictive pricks.
While these first five seasons have aired during Barack Obama’s presidency, Veep seems tailor-made for whatever nonsense is coming next. Whether the 45th president is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Veep will play like a documentary for what the most cynical Americans will assume about the shenanigans in Washington, D.C., over the next four-to-eight years.
If I weren’t such a jaded freak myself, I’d probably conclude that Veep presents an extremely dark omen for the American character and that its enormous popular and critical success is an indication of our country’s ongoing moral decline on the world stage.
However—degenerate that I am—I can only report the truth, which is that this series has made me laugh out loud more than any other TV comedy I can recall. To borrow a line from The Producers: It’s shocking, outrageous, insulting, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Indeed, from a purely ethical perspective, Veep would be a total disgrace if it weren’t so goddamned funny. Like The Producers and other, similar comedic assaults on good taste, Veep follows the George Carlin credo of identifying the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and deliberately crossing it over and over again.
The people in this show—principally, the vice president and her staff—regularly do and say things that, in real life, would undoubtedly result in firings, lawsuits, restraining orders and the occasional stint in the big house. The joke, then, is that everyone else behaves in exactly the same way; therefore, there is no dependable authority figure to hold anyone to account. The inmates have very definitely assumed control of the asylum, and in this case, the asylum is the U.S. government.
This is not to say the characters in Veep are wholly immoral, incompetent, crooked or insane. A show like that would get very old very fast, since an entirely evil person is only slightly less boring than an entirely virtuous one.
The genius of Veep—like the genius of Seinfeld—is to have it both ways: To allow its heroes to behave horribly while subtly punishing them at key moments along the way, forcing them to haltingly, grudgingly learn their lessons. (Not that it changes their behavior much.)
If you’re looking for a one-sentence synopsis, we might say that Veep is about a gang of selfish, foul-mouthed sociopaths with a slow-burning contempt for their jobs, themselves, the American people and each other. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the show’s leading lady, has described her character, Vice President Selina Meyer, as “frustrated,” and that helps explain why the show works: Because, in our own way, we identify with that frustration and feel liberated by how these loony toons express themselves in the teeth of it.
And boy, do they ever. While the Obama administration has maintained its “no drama” reputation behind the scenes, Veep has functioned as its histrionic evil twin.
If the show has a secret sauce, it’s the dialogue, which is at once infinitely quotable and mostly unprintable. Even for HBO—a premium cable network that has long pushed the envelope for which words can be broadcast on American television—Veep has proved groundbreaking for its prevalence and variety of four-letter words and other adults-only verbal tics. I once had a poster in my college dorm that listed over two thousand vulgar words and phrases compiled by George Carlin over the years, and I suspect the Veep writers have that same poster and are trying to cram in every last item before the series gets cancelled. (It has been renewed at least through 2017, so there’s still time.)
At times, the entire show seems to be powered by pure sarcasm, with insults piled upon insults, each one more ridiculous and linguistically inventive than the last (e.g. “You know, you’re about as annoying as a condom filled with fire ants”). And when these guys aren’t simply one-upping each other with expressions of outsized mutual loathing, they are in a state of perpetual crisis control, attempting to undo political damage they themselves caused, invariably unleashing even greater havoc in the process. Almost every line of dialogue is pitched at a level of maximal desperation (“Burn everything incriminating, including this building”) or maximal rage (“If anyone needs me, I’ve gone outside to scream into the night”). There’s nothing subtle about any of this, and that’s what makes it so invigorating and so addictive. Call it a perpetual catharsis machine.
Yet the quiet moments work, too—rare as they are—thanks to good old-fashioned comic timing. Notice, say, the chief of staff’s expression when Selina proclaims, “That’s my final solution.” Or the speed with which Gary, Selina’s loyal bag man, can turn a smile into a frown upon realizing he has misread the mood of the room. Or how that same bag man is gradually revealed to be the one major character with any hint of a soul, and how—for that reason—he is perhaps the most abused and underappreciated character of them all. Typical.
All great comedy is based on exaggeration of a basic human truth. In the world of Veep, that truth is that public service is an inherently aggravating, thankless business that does not always draw the best and the brightest to the table and that, over time, can force otherwise honorable people to behave in dishonorable ways.
Of the series’ many running gags, arguably the most resonant is the vice president’s team’s habit of instituting elaborate cover-ups whenever anything goes awry, feeding ridiculous “official” stories to the press when simply telling the truth would be far less stressful and—in many cases—less incriminating. Indeed, the joke is that Selina’s people are equally prepared to lie about something totally benign—for instance, how Selina cut up her face by absentmindedly walking into a glass door—as about something much more sinister, such as the illegal use of Americans’ stolen personal data.
Except that it’s not a joke when it happens for real—as we are virtually assured it will under either a President Hillary or a President Donald. If these two human specimens have nothing else in common, they share the instinct to conceal any and all information that might make them look bad—no matter how insignificant that information is, and no matter how easily they could get caught in the lie. While Trump’s penchant for dishonesty is exponentially more disturbing than Clinton’s—indeed, he seems to have lost any capacity to discern truth from fiction—anyone who believes Hillary can be taken at face value is in for a long series of unpleasant surprises in the years to come.
The good news is that neither of these candidates is quite as appalling as their fictional counterparts in Veep—although, in the vulgarity department, at least one of them is sure giving it the old college try.
We always claim that truth is stranger than fiction. When it comes to our leaders, I’d really prefer it were the other way around.