Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘Veep’: A playful pander in Washington’s zoo

If it weren’t so viciously funny and laced with f-bombs in every other sentence, HBO’s new comedy series “Veep” (premiering Sunday night) could almost serve as campaign material for all those tea party-esque candidates who are forever running against “the usual business in Washington.”

“Veep” confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about our sad and frantic little town. The innermost inner-Beltway that is skewered here is a place that takes for granted the art of self-preservation. The knives are always out, even when they’re made of eco-friendly, politically opportunistic cornstarch that will break on a pad of butter. Vice President Selina Meyer, played by the superb Julia Louis-Dreyfus, stirs her coffee with one of these enviro-spoons, and it immediately melts. There you have “Veep’s” central metaphor: Washington as the pinnacle of failure, addicted to a never-ending display of pandering and message ma­nipu­la­tion.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus spoke with CBSNews.com on the red carpet at the D.C. premiere of her new HBO show \

Julia Louis-Dreyfus spoke with CBSNews.com on the red carpet at the D.C. premiere of her new HBO show "Veep." To prepare for her role as vice president, Dreyfus studied former vice presidents, but said the show is not a parody on Sarah Palin, or any politician.

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That’s not news, except in the way “Veep” treats the corrosive muck as a given — a way of life that needs no set-up or explanation. Here we see a narcissistic and unqualified vice president of a government beyond repair, but “Veep” is not at all outraged about that. Instead, it revels in Washington’s ego-driven despicability; it wishes only to make hay.

And as ludicrous as “Veep” might pretend to be, how far off is it really? Nothing in the episodes I’ve seen rivals the outlandish laugh riots of a Secret Service detail hiring Cartagena hookers, or the recent implosion over at the General Services Administration after news broke of that scandalous $800,000-plus convention in Las Vegas. The mass-resignations, the political embarrassment, the congressional investigation — this is right in line with Vice President Meyer’s tragicomic milieu. Even the stern video admonishment by the GSA’s new acting chief, Dan Tangherlini, had something “Veep”-ishly appealing to it. I watched it on YouTube over and over — imagining the assured, handsomely blue-eyed Tangherlini slapping his forehead between takes in abject dismay.

In “Veep,” it’s as if all of Aaron Sorkin’s hyperverbal “West Wing” strivers have had every last trace of their idealism scrubbed away, leaving only their raw ambition and incessant yammering. The result is sublimely — if sadly — appropriate to the present-day vibe, the deeply cynical Washington in which we live and work.

As often as not, the worst of Selina’s public humiliations stem from her own sense of hubris and her Larry David-like tendency to stick her foot in her mouth, especially if a nearby microphone is hot. So it happens that she uses the word “retard” during a hastily edited fundraising speech at a party, a flub that lands her front and center on the next morning’s Style section (holla!) and sets off a hilarious day of attempted atonement with the mental-disability lobby. This is a vice president who schedules a “normalizing” photo-op visit to a minority-owned fro-yo shop on U Street but comes down with a flu bug on the way, and, after one bite of goopy yogurt, has an unfortunate “Bridesmaids”-style accident while trying to hustle back to her motorcade limo.

Thanks to Louis-Dreyfus, and the show’s remarkable knack for dialogue and timing, “Veep” is instantly engaging and outrageously fun. Like all memorable TV comedies of late — “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — it transacts in awkwardness in a way that summons the oddest sort of cringing sympathy for its lead character. That emotion is as old as watching Lucille Ball try to worm her way out the disasters of her own making.

“Did the president call?” Selina routinely asks her surly secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw).

“No,” Sue always says.

The president never calls.

Three episodes in, it’s not certain that any of us will get to see this president. An officiously unctuous junior White House aide, Jonah Ryan (Timothy C. Simons), is assigned to be the liaison between Selina’s office and the West Wing. His main job is to restrict her access to POTUS, to preemptively stripmine her prepared speeches of anything substantive or politically risque (the term of art here is “pencil-[bleep]ing”). Jonah even dissuades the vice president from getting a dog, because the first lady is about to get a dog.

“Veep” was created by Armando Iannucci, who also co-writes and directs the show’s early episodes, and it has the quick-witted flavor of his 2009 film “In the Loop,” a farce about foreign diplomacy. Former New York Times columnist Frank Rich (who now writes for New York magazine) is one of the show’s producers, which may help explain the dusting of verisimilitude in “Veep” that strikes me as intangibly Washington-like, even though much of the show was filmed in Baltimore.

Something here hits the right note between slapstick and plausibility. Iannucci and his co-writers have landed on a brilliantly fresh knack for Washington mockery as “Veep” sends all those starry-eyed 1990s Beltway fables — Sorkin’s “The American President” or stuff like “Dave” or even that old Goldie Hawn comedy “Protocol” — into the paper shredder. Those comedies shared an optimistic regard for the federal soul, but that sort of thing no longer exists. In stark contrast, Selina’s self-absorbed missteps and maladroit scheming depict a Washington of irredeemable dysfunction. (The show’s closest kin, D.C.-wise, might be the 1999 Watergate parody, “Dick.”) You don’t get the feeling that Selina is the type of TV politico who will ask her motorcade to stop off at the National Archives so she can gaze lovingly upon the Constitution.

It’s as if certain aspects of Sarah Palin, a tiny bit of Joe Biden and a lot of “The Comeback’s” Valerie Cherish have been grafted onto Selina’s neuroses — a go-getter whose desperate bids for attention and positive limelight lead her to fixate on everything but the gravitas of her position. The joke here is that there is precious little in her job description besides breaking ties in the Senate and taking the oath of office if the president croaks. “What have I been missing?” Selina asks Sen. Barbara Hallowes (Kate Burton), a rival from her earlier days in Congress.

“Power,” Hallowes says.

No sooner does “Veep” begin than the veep arrives at her own unattended glad-handing event on the Hill — a vast room filled with hors d’oeuvres but devoid of elected officials, because her cornstarch utensil effort to promote “clean jobs” has ticked off the plastics and oil industry.

“Glasses on?” she asks her sycophantic aide, Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), as if it’s going to matter whether she wears them or not.

“I like your glasses,” he affirms of her chic horn-rims.

“No, glasses make me look weak. It’s like a wheelchair for the eye.”

She lives and dies by how things appear, spending more time pestering her chief of staff, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), to get the weather service to remove “Selina” from a list of next year’s hurricane names than working on meaningful initiatives.

“Veep” is refreshingly indifferent to Selina’s party affiliation (Democrat? Republican?), which will resonate with true Washingtonians, who stay put while administrations come and go, reshuffling their careers according to the partisan roster but never really departing. “Veep” finds Selina celebrating her 20th year in Washington, having spent most of those years on the Hill. We know her key issues, as vice president, have narrowed themselves to “clean oil, Yemen and Mission to Mars,” but that’s about it. “Veep” works best when she comes across as a completely malleable moderate.

Mostly we’re left to ponder: What is she? What created her? She ran unsuccessfully for president, a flash in the primary pan, and accepted the front-runner’s invitation to join his ticket as VP — begrudgingly, it turns out. She is divorced, which is another part of her story that I hope gets fleshed out in future episodes. She has a daughter in college, whose disdain for her mother’s ambition is apparent with every shrug and frown for the cameras.

Instead, Selina’s true family is her woefully inept yet loyal staff, played by a terrific ensemble cast. Gary is only ever a step behind with an array of sanitary hand gels and a stepping stool to help Selina see over lecterns. He mutters arcane, Mike Allen-esque trivial details to her about the important and non-important people approaching from all sides. Impressed by the sharky qualities of Hallowes’s communications director, Dan Egan (Reid Scott), Selina hires him to add teeth to her political agenda — much to the dismay of Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), her own communications director, a perspiring Reagan-era Hill rat who grazes cocktail buffets and maintains plausible deniability on any potential crisis.

“Veep” knows its stuff well enough to equip Selina’s staff with BlackBerrys instead of iPhones, because Washington is the last bastion of the dreaded device. Everyone in “Veep” harbors a serious BlackBerry addiction, another detail that sets them apart from the Washington caricatures of political movies and TV shows of yore. I faintly recall, as a reporter, when everyone in Washington started looking down instead of up. Once they fell under the BlackBerry spell, the world ceased to exist as shapes and faces and nuance. Reporters stopped noticing things around them unless it came across as fresh text in the palm of their hand. The town changed. A collective mind-set emerged, but instead of clarity it offered 24-7 derangement and instant scandal. That’s when the circus tent fell and the real chaos began. That’s the world “Veep” so intelligently lampoons.

Veep

(30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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