Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives such a commanding performance in Veep, which premiered Sunday night on HBO, that the opening half-hour sped by so quickly and so enjoyably, I barely noticed that I never actually laughed during its 30 minutes. Which could be a problem for a sitcom going forward, but first, I want to sing praises to Louis-Dreyfus, and to her supporting cast.
Louis-Dreyfus’ Vice President Selina Meyer is a veep without much influence constantly trying to gain some, a ripe premise for comedy and one that show creator Armando Iannucci has already mined to great success overseas in the Britcom The Thick of It and in his 2009 feature film In The Loop. In the first installment of Veep, we saw V.P. Meyer trying to advance her green initiative with the introduction of cornstarch-based utensils in government offices, a move that irritated (“outrage” being too strong a word to use for anything a Vice President introduces) the plastics lobby. Time for damage-control, with Meyer’s chief of staff Amy (a wonderfully harried, pivot-on-a-dime Anna Chlumsky), Meyer’s personal aide Gary (Arrested Development’s Tony Hale), and her press secretary Mike (Matt Walsh) all thrown into action, often at cross-purposes.
What became clear early on is that many of the situations Selina Meyer finds herself in could occur in any workplace. Her cornstarch spoon predictably wilted in a cup of hot coffee. She delegated the signing of a sympathy card (to the widow of a dead Senator known as “Rape-y Reeves” for his serial sexual harassments) to Amy, who inadvertently signed her own name, which led to Gary being dispatched to retrieve the card. It was a slapsticky situation that wouldn’t have been out of place on I Love Lucy.
Veep deploys weapons from the Louis-Dreyfus comic arsenal that were also vividly on display in the underrated, cruelly cancelled The New Adventures of Old Christine. Everybody always goes to Seinfeld for their Louis-Dreyfus comparisons, but it was on Old Christine that we were presented with Louis-Dreyfus 2.0, a vibrant woman who played wifty shrewdly, who presented herself as a junk-food-eating wine-swiller even as we could see the performer’s steely fitness, portraying someone who could not prevent herself from screwing up, falling prey to anxiety and insecurity, stoking her self-esteem with absurdly excessive bravado. As Vice President Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus is all this and more, as spiffed up and serenely composed as we’d expect a prominent pol to be, which only makes her occasional explosions of frustration, rage, and embarrassment seem all the more wild. She can toggle back and forth between the Vice President’s day-to-day unimportance as a shaper of policy and her ever-imminent importance as the successor to the President with utterly convincing displays of logic and emotion. Louis-Dreyfus and Iannucci have collaborated to create something special here: a potent female eunuch.
For some reason, many early reviews have seized upon Veep’s extensive use of four-letter words, as though the series wasn’t appearing on the network that gave us Deadwood, and follows one of the channel’s more unrestrained current shows, Game of Thrones. Yes, there is an impressively varied use of the f-word, but I doubt that you were shocked to hear them coming from Louis-Dreyfus, were you? Did you ever doubt that Elaine Benis, in the privacy of her own home, didn’t frequently bellow, “God, that Jerry is so emotionally f—ed up!”
One of the immediately noticeable things in Veep (and in the two subsequent episodes HBO sent out for review) is the running joke that Selina asks frequently whether the President has called her (he hasn’t). This is such a hoary sitcom joke (think back to mostly-unseen Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show) that I had hoped Veep would start to use it and then, when we’re caught off guard, would suddenly show the President in a casual reveal: that would have been satisfying, an acknowledgment that the old running joke needed to be subverted. But I was disappointed to hear Louis-Dreyfus tell Jon Stewart earlier this week that there are no plans to ever have the veep engage face-to-face with the show’s President.
I’m also not in favor of Veep’s timid non-partisan status. You mean to tell me the makers of this show can pride themselves on their fearless use of foul language, but they’re afraid of alienating some segment of HBO viewers by revealing that this administration is Republican? (And let’s face it, that is the party affiliation that would be nervy for an HBO sitcom to brand with.) If Veep revealed Meyer’s party affiliation, it would open up new avenues for splenetic attacks on party positions on both sides of the aisle; as it is, the show must remain hemmed in, kept to details about the brutal niceties of political discourse rather than political policy.
I cite these disappointments not to review the show that Veep is not – that’s a loser’s game for any critic – but rather to suggest one reason why the show isn’t as funny as it could be. Which is not to say I won’t be watching Louis-Dreyfus and her staff every week, f—ing up and trying to make shinola from s—.