The fact that HBO's latest half-hour comedy Veep is premiering a full week after Girls is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, so much attention, hype and praise was lavished upon Lena Dunham's series in the run-up to its debut that Veep finally bowed last night feeling almost like an afterthought, despite the presence of an established TV actress (as opposed to an untested multi-hyphenate dabbling in the medium for the first time) in the form of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Actually, having Louis-Dreyfus on board might have equally contributed to the perception of Veep as an also-ran in the race to anoint the next great HBO series. Look at the fresh-faced youngsters adorning the posters and teasers for Girls and you feel like you're gazing at the next generation of television stars. Seeing Louis-Dreyfus adorning her own one-sheet, on the other hand, seems like a nod to the past.
At the same time though, flying under the radar may wind up working in Veep's favor. After all, as the cast and crew of Girls are now finding out, being anointed the "next big thing" and "voices of their generation" inevitably results in some pretty severe backlash. The less grandiose talk surrounding Veep will help temper expectations considerably; instead of an up-to-the-minute meta-commentary on the state of contemporary femininity and culture, people will tune into this series just expecting to see a funny political comedy. And that's precisely what Veep is, which won't be a surprise to anyone who is already familiar with the work of the show's creator, Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci.
A veteran of Steve Coogan's brilliant I'm Alan Partridge series (and its predecessor, Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge), Iannucci firmly established his own comic voice in 2005 with the hilarious satire of British politics, The Thick of It. That series was loosely spun-off into the 2009 feature film In the Loop, which took the spoofery global and added such American actors as James Gandolfini and Anna Chlumsky to the show's stable of British comic talents. And now here's Veep, Iannucci's first U.S. series, which takes place amongst the halls of power -- specifically the offices of Vice President Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) -- in Washington D.C. It's safe to say at this point that Iannucci can really only do one thing... but he does it exceptionally well.
What Iannucci excels at specifically is his ability to create simple scenarios that spiral out of control due to mismanagement, misunderstandings or simple stupidity. That these situations happen at the government level just makes them funnier, as politicians generally like to project the aura that they are firmly in control at all times. Like The Thick of It, Veep takes great pleasure in puncturing that balloon, showing just how quickly these supposedly savvy operators crack under the slightest hint of pressure.
Last night's pilot, for example, started with Vice President Meyer preparing to attend a meeting about filibuster reform, while also readying to announce one of her signature clean jobs initiatives -- swapping out the usual plastic forks and knives for corn starch utensils in federal buildings. The setbacks began when she arrives at the meeting and finds it severely underpopulated; apparently, an errant Tweet from her office regarding the corn starch silverware has been picked up by the blogs and pissed off the influential plastics industry, which explains the high number of last-minute no-shows. While trying to put out that particular fire, Meyers and her entourage -- which includes Chief of Staff Amy Brookheimer (Chlumsky, playing a different character than she did in In the Loop), personal aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) and director of communications Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) -- wound up inadvertently lighting more matches that threatened to engulf their whole office.
Upcoming episodes follow the same pattern; next week's installment, for example, finds Selena's plan to visit a local frozen yogurt store for a basic meet-and-greet constantly going awry and, in the third episode, the demands of the job keep her from spending time with her college-aged daughter, leading to a major public argument.
Beyond his ability to orchestrate controlled chaos, one of the chief pleasures of Iannucci's work lies in his densely layered scripts, which are packed with clever wordplay and fast and furious walk-and-talks. At its best, his dialogue sounds like Aaron Sorkin minus the self-importance. (Some of our favorite lines from the pilot include: "That was your bad okay. What's wrong?"; "Glasses make me look weak. It's like a wheelchair for the eye."; "That address makes me hard."; and this exchange between Selina and Mike: "What would you say were the two biggest campaign mistakes that we made?" "You looked tired a lot and the hat.") He's also exceptionally proficient with profanity; not since David Mamet has a writer so completely elevated swearing to the level of poetry. (The best example of this is his Thick of It creation Malcolm Tucker, a government PR man played by Peter Capaldi. Here's hoping he crosses the pond for a cameo sometime later this season.)
It's obvious just how much the cast relishes tearing into this dialogue; Louis-Dreyfus's performance in particular is just a marvel of crack comic timing and remarkable in-the-moment instincts that can only come from years of experience with ensemble comedy. On the surface, Veep may not seem as culturally relevant or intellectually provocative as a show like Girls, but in terms of pure belly laughs and sheer entertainment value, Iannucci has Dunham beat hands down.
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