The United States government, and the people that work for it, usually fall into one of three boxes in most films and television shows:
- Noble: Earnest men and women, who have foregone wealth and status, serve their country and change the world. "Eagleland" is a precious shining city on a hill full of people ready to defend freedom and liberty.
- Stupid: A government filled with inept, uncaring bureaucrats, that provides neither efficiency or effectiveness. Citizens are forced to wait in lines and fill out forms in triplicate for services based on policies that make little to no sense.
- Evil: The government is trying to take over the world by any means necessary. Either the very nature of the government is evil, or its secretly run by a cabal of evil people (or aliens) that are stealing taxpayer funds to use on hookers and blow.
With Armando Iannucci's Veep, the satire falls mostly into the stupid category. The series, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, returned recently for its third season, with the story turning toward the beginning of Vice President Selina Meyer's run for president. More after the jump.
Aaron Sorkin tends to gravitate toward the "Eagleland" side of things. A trait common to all of his television series are passionate, idealistic people striving to perform their best at a task. Whether it's the staffers of The Newsroom or the sketch ensemble troop of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin loves writing about the triumph of courageous people. As I've mentioned before, both The West Wing and its spiritual predecessor The American President proceed from an idealistic, Capraesque vision of American politics that believes in the positive aspects of government and more importantly the positive aspects of people in government. Juli Weiner once penned an article at Vanity Fair in which she argued Sorkin had been influential in shaping the current generation of public servants. In Sorkin's political universe, those in government are good public servants who are trying to do their best to make a difference. Those with principles are victorious over those who spread half-truths and distortions. And all that is necessary for the best political policy to carry the day, no matter how controversial it might be, is the guts to say what you mean and mean what you say.
However, here in the real world, that's not always true. "Good" and right do not always win in the end, lies and distortions can work all too well, and "how" something is said or done can be judged to be just as important, if not more important, than what is said.
“We’re trying to figure out how I think about this issue.” —SelinaThe flaw that every character on this show shares is that they believe they're smarter than they actually are. Unlike Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) on House of Cards, these characters aren't five steps ahead of everyone else. A lot of times they're not even aware of their situation, but they stupidly think they are. And the best comedic moments come from how close to home the absurdity of it reflects reality. In The Thick of It, the characters work for a largely unimportant part of her Majesty's government that no one takes seriously. When translating that to Veep, Iannucci decided its closest counterpart in the U.S. government would be the vice president's office.
The first three episodes of the third season are centered around the stumbling rollout of the "Selina Meyer for President" campaign.
- "Some New Beginnings: Our Next American Journey": When the series began, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyers came off as what if Sarah Palin actually became vice president and was a Democrat from Maryland? However, as the series has progressed, they've fleshed the character out to be much more than that. Selina is in a lot of ways a horrible human being, but she's no worse than anyone else in this show. Selina wants to be president because she wants to be president, not to implement a policy or make things better for a group of people. She just wants to have the title and position, if only as an affirmation of her own political worth. And I think Julia Louis-Dreyfus is most effective at making the character somewhat sympathetic when Selina notes the stupidity of her position and the public charades that she's a part of when cursing out her staff in private. And I think that Selina is someone people would vote for if she were that "real" in public. (Although, since everything everyone says gets mangled by the press, maybe not.) The problem for Selina is that she becomes the worst type of politician when someone points a camera in her direction. She tries to be all things to all people, and inevitably pisses everyone off by coming off as a phony, out of touch, and is ripe for parody on Saturday Night Live. For example, Selina publishes a policy book because that's what all presidential candidates are supposed to do. Except it's a book with a horrible title ("It's so full of shit there's a colon right in the middle of it") that says nothing. "A big, fat, morbidly obese nothing" that is so nothing Selina has no idea what is written in her name, and when she reads the text she can't decipher the specific policy positions.
“Freedom means the freedom to choose how to use that freedom to protect the freedom of others.” —Selina
- Abortion Politics: The second episode of this season has the (unnamed and never shown) lame-duck president switching his stance on abortion from pro-choice to pro-life. Similar to how The Thick of It never specifically mentioned either the Labour or Conservative parties, Veep has never mentioned the specific political parties of the characters, but this would seem to be strongest hint that Selina is a Democrat. The president's switch causes the press to ask prospective candidates to reiterate their own position on abortion. The interesting thing to me about how the show handled the issue is that they both pointed out the sexism inherent to it and how sometimes female candidates are in a "no-win" situation (i.e. the dissection of responses that start with "As a woman ..."), but they also showed Selina to have zero principles. Her entire strategy comes down to polling if there's a certain number of weeks to cut off abortions, and figuring out how many interest groups are arrayed on each side and going through the motions trying to placate them with meetings. And after all of that doesn't work, and Dan (Reid Scott) screams for her to just pick a side, the end result is that she doesn't take a position.
"If men could get pregnant you could get an abortion at an ATM ... Maybe I should just say, ‘Get the government out of my fucking snatch.’” —Selina
- Hepatitis J: When the series began, one of the main differences pointed out between Veep and The Thick of It is the absence of a counterpart to Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, who was based in part on Tony Blair's Director of Communications/hatchet man Alastair Campbell. Iannucci has said in interviews that he doubts that someone like Malcolm could actually function in American politics. But I also think the lack of a Malcolm-like character worked for the show's narrative, in it showed that Selina's position as vice president was such a non-factor in politics that she didn't even merit someone of stature to care about her. What she did get was Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), a White House staffer barely above an intern. Jonah is also one of the most consistently funny elements of the show. This season has seen him fired from the White House and Jonah trying to stake out new territory as a political blogger. However, his blog ("Ryantology.net") is a combination of every "new media" element that people hate.
- Based On A True Story: Like its British counterparts, Iannucci seems to have based some of the Veep characters on real politicians and their associates, as well as the scandals and troubles that pop up from time to time here in the real world. For example, Governor Danny Chung (Randall Park) has aspects that make him out to be an evil version of John Kerry. Kent Davison (Gary Cole) has similarities to Dick Morris. Selina's husband Andrew (David Pasquesi) is a reworking of the trouble Geraldine Ferraro had dealing with her husband's past during the '84 presidential campaign. Although, I've heard some people say Andrew might be based on the troubles that former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had with her partner, Tim Mathieson.
- Take Heart ... There Are Always People Worse Than You At Your Job: Almost everyone on Selina's staff sucks at their job. But they suck in different ways. Both Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan think they're the smartest people on the staff, but both fail because they either have problems with confrontation, or know only confrontation and can't finesse any situation. Mike (Matt Walsh) is a director of communications that has no work ethic and no ability to communicate with the press or anyone else. The only exceptions are Gary (Tony Hale) and Sue (Sufe Bradshaw). Gary is the best "body man" that Selina could ever ask for, but it's a pathetic existence that he wants to escape. However, every time he tries to do something different, Gary fails spectacularly. The only character that escapes looking like a fool is Sue, because Sue is just a civil servant who puts her nose down, does what she's told, and doesn't give a shit about moving up the ladder of power.
- The Little People: When did it become standard operating procedure to use human props when giving political speeches? If you want to give a speech about law enforcement, you get 50 cops to stand behind you. If you want to talk about national security, you go to a military base and get 50 marines to stand at attention over your shoulder. If you want to talk about the environment, you go stand in a forest and have a bunch of park rangers with Smokey the Bear hats in the background. Instead of sounding like you know what the hell you're talking about when giving a speech, it's now necessary to reinforce that idea by putting a bunch of people in camera frame at the same time. The latest episode centers around Selina's candidacy announcement and is quasi told from the perspective of an activist asked to appear onstage with Selina. Alicia Bryce (Tracie Thoms) is campaigning for universal child care. Who could be against that? Well ... yeah, there's always someone against something. After Alicia arrives at the event, she realizes that she's just one of many "visual aids" (i.e. disabled farmer, injured fireman, foster mom, heroic restauranter, etc.) to surround the vice president.
"Do I look like I rode in on the last fuck truck, Selina? You are smuggling in universal childcare." —Senator Doyle
"You sound paranoid. Ok, I'm mentioning childcare. That's it." —Selina
"Oh, so we can say anything now? Alright, we can say we can heal the sick. We can turn water into blowjobs. Look Selina, play it safe. Put the AARP on those steps. Seniors vote. They've got nothing else to do." —Senator Doyle