Thursday, 13 March 2014

Veep: Season 1

Selina Meyer is the Vice-President of the United States of America, in theory one of the most powerful positions in the world. In practice, she is a spare tyre kept busy with trivial makework and assigned a staff of dysfunctional backstabbers.

Veep is an American comedy series created by Armando Iannucci, a renowned British comedian and satirist. Veep can be regarded as a companion work to Iannucci's BBC series The Thick of It, which explored the dysfunctional workings of British government via a fictitious government department and the people who run it. Like The Thick of It, Veep has no laughter track and its comedy comes from the situations the characters find themselves in, either through bad luck or through their own ill-conceived actions.

Veep is centred on the character of Selina Meyer, played with aplomb by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (best-known for her recurring role as Elaine on Seinfeld). Meyer is a former Presidential candidate whose failed to make the cut and feels she has been given a powerless role to prevent her being a threat to the President. It's also suggested that the President's wife (who, along with the President, is never seen) hates her, and several storylines revolve around Meyer inadvertently upstaging the President's wife through fashion or headline-grabbing 'cute' moves like getting a dog. Almost every episode features a moment where Meyer asks if the President has called, only to be told no.

The bulk of the comedy comes from Meyer's staff: Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), her neurotic personal aide; Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), a well-meaning but slightly inept fixer who ends up taking the fall for some of Meyer's misjudgements; Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), Meyer's director of communications who, bizarrely, insists that he owns a dog when in fact he does not; Dan Egan (Reid Scott), a new, ambitious and ruthless staffmember who is not quite as smart as he thinks he is; and Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw), Meyer's secretary who seems to regard politics (and almost everything) with bored contempt. Completing the regular cast is Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), the liaison with the White House, a fantastically creepy and self-obsessed man specialising in inappropriate behaviour and inventing useless new acronyms (FDOTUS for the President's potential new dog). What makes the show work is that not all of these people are shown to be completely useless (otherwise they wouldn't be in their jobs), but that they prove unable to adapt to rapidly-developing situations. In particular, the older staff-members have no idea on how to deal with blogs and Twitter and spend vast amounts of time obsessed with style and spin rather than the substance of their policies.

Performances are uniformly excellent, with Louis-Dreyfus bringing her A-game and convincing as a politician of ambition and substance whose career has taken an abrupt left-turn into near irrelevance, resulting in frustration and annoyance. This is brilliantly show in a sequence where the President falls ill, so Meyer is called into the White House's emergency situation room, where she is almost overcome by the plush furniture, flashing lights and people treating her like she's the most important person on Earth. When the President recovers, Meyer is dumped back to her previous task, eating yogurt at a dessert store in a futile effort to show how down with the people she is. The gap between the two positions has never quite been nailed so ruthlessly as this. Special mention must also be made to Timothy Simons, who makes his character despicably punchable whenever he appears but you also want to hear what fantastically inappropriate thing he's going to say next. He's the Joffrey Baratheon of the West Wing, though fortunately without the power to execute anyone.

The season has a nicely-developed storyline about Meyer desperately trying to get some policies - any policies - through government to show she's not completely useless. An innocuous tweet about cutlery in the first episode snowballs out of control, taking with it several government bills and congressional hearings, whilst an apparent crisis in Meyer's personal life threatens to upset her career until she dumps it on one of her aides. The story, characters and dialogue are all sharp and very funny.

Compared to the genius of The Thick of It, Veep more than holds it own. Veep isn't quite as knives-out nasty as The Thick of It at its most vicious, mainly due to the lack of a character comparable to Malcolm Tucker (although foul-mouthed Congressman Roger Furlong, who appears late in the season, shows hints that he might go that way). But Iannucci's decision to make the new show stand on its own feet without resorting to his old stand-bys is both a brave one and one that works. There are a few episodes that don't quite gel together and it's arguable if some of the staffmembers would get away with what they do without being fired on the instant, but overall this is a very strong opening season.

Season 1 of Veep (****) is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray). Season 2 will be released in June. Season 3 starts airing on HBO in the USA in April.

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