Veep and the Glories of Julia Louis-Dreyfus

While Girls has dominated the blog cycle with forcefully divided opinions about its particular take on the modern youth experience, HBO’s other freshman comedy series Veep has quietly become a mandatory part of jam-packed Sunday-night television viewing. Veep, whose finale airs this Sunday, is a workplace sitcom centered around a charismatic but questionably stable authority figure; Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer. The opening credits quickly dispense with any need for exposition and set the tone for the show’s cynical (but not heartless) take on American politics. Like The Wire, Veep is about the unforeseen inevitable conflicts between agendas, egos, and reality. It also calls to mind the cool office clashes of The Good Wife and occasionally the goofier politicking of Parks and Recreation.

As Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus is mostly a Kenny Powersish buffoon, but (like Kenny) she is also somehow three-dimensional. Ostensibly the protagonist, she is really the subject. Meyer spends a good amount of time off-screen while staff are tasked with handling her problems, most of which she caused. Veep‘s supporting characters are Selina’s employees: Anna Chlumsky as blunt chief of staff Amy, Matt Walsh as acidic old hand director of communications Mike McLintock, Tony Hale (Buster!) as hapless Smithers-like personal aide Gary, Timothy Simons as weirdo White House liaison Jonah, Sufe Bradshaw as dry desk assistant Sue, and Reid Scott as womanizing deputy director of communications Dan.

No Veep character is strictly a straight man. Each is ridiculous in his own way, with personal vices and quirks. While there are moments of seriousness and the occasional broad joke, Veep maintains its unpretentious level of exaggerated realism and never stops being vaguely believable in its depiction of the political social circuit and the difficulty of getting anything whatsoever done in government. Veep is the cousin of creator Armando Ianucci’s acclaimed BBC sitcom The Thick of It, which spawned film version In the Loop (also featuring former My Girl Chlumsky).

The comedy is filmed in the fly-on-the-wall cinema-verité style that has dominated sitcoms since The Office, but without that show’s interview “confession booth” cutaways. The show rotates around managing the minor political crises that keep tanking the VP’s approval ratings, often involving leaked personal info about Meyer. It plays up the comedy of the VP’s role as Robin to the president’s Batman; the underlying tipped power relationship between the unseen nonpartisan POTUS and Meyer’s acclaim-hungry politician. Veep doesn’t overidealize workplace families like sitcoms often do, but it nails the forced familiarity and inside jokes of people working long hours with each other. There’s a certain kind of constant low-volume annoyance co-workers share that can be construed as sentimental. Veep is the show Aaron Sorkin shows think they are.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a national treasure. She is hilarious, fearless, and incredibly gorgeous. The through line connecting the new “girl” comedies that have sprung up this year is that they are all rooted in Elaine Benes’s DNA — the iconic Seinfeld character whose weird neuroses and petty grievances were rarely gender-specific. Elaine was competitive, combative, a serial dater, and a snob who was also clever, funny, and sexy despite a frumpy (you might just call it ’90s) fashion sense. She was aggressive, shallow, and stubborn to a fault, never forced into being a likable or approachable character. She was allowed to be just as horrible and harebrained as the boys.

Louis-Dreyfus herself is an heiress. She belongs to a prominent Alsatian Jewish family line and grew up in Manhattan and D.C. with a billionaire father. While early criticism of Lena Dunham focused on her privileged New York upbringing (and has since died down since Girls keeps proving that Dunham has real chops), I have never heard anyone attack Louis-Dreyfus for her background, because she is so undeniably talented. She never broke out or created any characters while on SNL, but she met Larry David there. He eventually lobbied to cast her as Elaine, a role inspired by several of David’s ex-girlfriends turned platonic friends.

While The New Adventures of Old Christine was a good showcase for Louis-Dreyfus’s crack timing with a punchline (as well as Wanda Sykes’s), it’s wonderful to watch her stretch out into the odd pronunciations, awkward pauses, and obscene jokes allowed on a premium cable show. Louis-Dreyfus is an expert at conveying a range of emotions with just a few facial shifts, showing all the strata of public performance of power. Selina could come off as unforgivably bitchy and villainous in the hands of a less capable actress, but Louis-Dreyfus always keeps your sympathy or at least your cringing interest, a lot like Larry David’s forever self-burying character on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The Veep cast members are uniformly great, although Chlumsky is a particularly nice surprise as the brittle and frazzled Amy. The show’s half-hour passes very briskly with a constant propulsion of jokes and plot. It’s been picked up for a 10-episode second season, as has Girls, giving HBO another jolt of much-needed comedic cultural credibility in the wake of the end of Eastbound & Down. Selina is a complex, interesting character; callous, vain, self-centered but insecure, with large appetites for sex and power but also a secret vulnerable streak that fights with her pride. In a banner era for humorously difficult women on television, Selina Meyer is a potential future hall-of-famer. All I ever wanted was a female Basil Fawlty.

Filed Under: HBO, Veep

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert