Vicious political comedy taps Armando Iannucci's genius.
Any savvy TV 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.
It did. The political-comedy pilot -- Iannucci hated it -- wasn't picked up, and in 2009 he 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 camera work. More, he's a sublime political-comedy scientist who mixes swearing, anger and yelling with intelligence and cynicism. Iannucci's viciously witted actors are like soldiers sent in to kill weak or sweet comedy. Not everybody can do that, especially at a network. Luckily, his new series, Veep, airs on HBO, where he's allowed to take the gloves off.
As Vice President Selina Meyer, a former senator who almost immediately regrets accepting second-in-command duty -- she has no real power, and the (so-far-unseen) president delegates all of the crappy jobs to her -- Julia Louis-Dreyfus has found perhaps her best post-Seinfeld role. She takes to it with such fervor -- the constant swearing, the barely veiled desire to become president, 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 more to like. Meyer's team includes chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky of In the Loop), who puts out endless fires; right-hand-and-body man Gary (Tony Hale of Arrested Development), who basically lives on the veep's shoulders whispering tidbits about people she meets ("Wife, not daughter; wife, not daughter!"); 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 (everyone calls the dog a Bullshitzu); Dan (Reid Scott), an ambitious political operative who one-ups everyone; office secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw), who 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.
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 buzz saw Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), but Veep hits on all cylinders. It's 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 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's writers are simply mirroring the ineptness and soul-crushing compromises around them.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, April 22 (HBO)