Life Imitates ‘Veep’

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.

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Springtime For Donald (and the GOP)

I don’t know why I didn’t see it before—perhaps it took a Hitler comparison to really hammer the point home—but I’ve found the perfect reference point for the bizarro performance art that is the Trump presidential campaign.  Indeed, it’s so obvious there’s really no way around it.

Donald Trump is The Producers come to life.

Y’all know The Producers.  A 1968 film and a 2001 musical, Mel Brooks’ masterpiece of lunacy is the story of a washed-up Broadway kingpin, Max Bialystock, who schemes to put on the most unwatchable, offensive Broadway musical ever produced—a show guaranteed to close in one night, enabling Bialystock to pocket his investors’ money without ever needing to pay it back.

As an elaborate act of fraud, this teeters on the edge between ingenious and completely nuts.  In any case, it shows real gumption on Bialystock’s part—a level of greed and hunger, at once spectacular and pathetic, of which we can only stand in awe.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Whenever any prominent public figure runs for high office, we more or less take it as read that he really means it—that he genuinely (if misguidedly) thinks he could win and is prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of the office should he succeed.

We do not generally presume, for instance, that a quasi-serious presidential candidate would run for purely mercenary reasons—a drawn-out charade to make an extra few (million) bucks.  True, virtually all candidates tend to release a book upon entering the race—in America, there is always a profit to be made somewhere—but we nonetheless grant them their sincerity.  After all, considering what an epic headache the whole electoral process is, what kind of lunatic would dive in just for the hell of it?

A lunatic named Trump, that’s who.

Look:  None of us can prove that Donald Trump doesn’t take his own candidacy seriously and that his play for the White House is nothing more than a means of feeding his planet-sized ego before he ultimately tiptoes out the back door—say, a few hours prior to the Iowa caucuses.  Nor can we prove that he doesn’t actually give a damn about the wellbeing of the Republican Party or, for that matter, the country as a whole.  Or that he is, in fact, a secret Democratic Party mole who is actively sabotaging the GOP’s chances of ever winning another presidential election.

We don’t know any of these things for sure.  All we can say—and we might as well—is that if Donald Trump were a Democratic double agent sent in to destroy the GOP from within, the resulting blast would look almost exactly like what’s going on right now.

After all, this was supposed to be the year the Republican Party would make nice with various racial and ethnic minority groups.  The year the party’s mythical “big tent” would expand to include enough non-white voters to actually carry a national election in our increasingly non-white society.

This being the case, what better result could the Democrats hope for than a GOP standard-bearer who is so fanatically hostile towards those very folks—Hispanics and Muslims most of all—that he has undertaken a one-man crusade to literally banish them from the country?  A guy who has effectively taken one look at these potential electoral converts and said, “Go screw yourselves.”

It would all make perfect sense if Trump were a fictional character dreamed up in a laboratory at Democratic National Committee headquarters.  Or—more plausibly—if, like Max Bialystock, he were deliberately self-sabotaging as part of a ruse to reap maximum benefits while assuming minimal responsibility—that is, enjoying the perks of running for president without the complications of actually being president.

In any case, Trump is plainly a slow-motion catastrophe for the GOP, which brings us to the most Producers-like component of this whole ridiculous story:  The fact that Trump’s methods have managed to backfire in every conceivable way.  No matter how insane his candidacy becomes, he just can’t seem to lose.

In the Mel Brooks film, of course, the show that Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, decide to produce is a neo-Nazi valentine to the Third Reich by the name of Springtime for Hitler.  In New York City of all places—an oasis of liberalism, Judaism and highbrow artistic tastes—nothing could be more toxic than an unironic paean to the good old days of the SS and Aryan supremacy.

The punch line, then, is that Bialystock’s audience members—more jaded and sophisticated than he gives them credit for—take Springtime for Hitler as a big, bold farce and laugh themselves halfway into next week.  As a result, the show is a smashing success and Bialystock finds himself on the precipice of financial ruin.

Candidate Trump is certainly a farce in his own right—a galling, topsy-turvy perversion of reality with bottomless comedic potential—except that the foundation of his surprising success is precisely the opposite of Bialystock’s:  Trump is winning because his audience can’t see through the façade.  Even as his whole shtick is essentially an Onion article that’s gotten out of hand, his supporters take him deadly seriously and think his ideas about mass deportation and religious persecution are just swell.  The more outrageous his public statements become, the higher he rises in the polls.

It begs the question:  Is there not a limit to Trumpism, after all?  If his slurs against Mexicans, women, prisoners of war, the disabled and now Muslims have failed to do him in, is there anything that will?  What is left for him to say that could feasibly erode his evidently bulletproof base of support?

The Springtime for Hitler connection is apt:  If you behave vaguely like a fascist dictator and still can’t get your fans to hate you—all the while being explicitly compared to the Führer in the press and apparently not minding it—then the crazy train can no longer be routed back to the station.  It’s going over the bridge and into the ravine, and that’s all there is to it.

Back in July, the actual Onion ran a story titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”  At that point, Trump was still a novelty item whose popularity, however surprising, was nothing to get too alarmed about, because we knew that somebody in that field would put him in his place.

Now that all of those assurances about Trump’s eventual collapse have proved false—or at least supremely premature—we onlookers have little choice but to morbidly peek our eyes through our fingers until this horror show finally plays itself out.

While we can sleep easy knowing that both history and statistics show that a Trump nomination—let alone a Trump presidency—is the longest of long shots, we can plunge ourselves right back into panic and despair over the likelihood that, should Trump manage to shame and disgrace himself all the way to the White House, he, like us, won’t have the slightest idea how he got there.