Tuned In: Story line weakens comedy of 'Veep'


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HBO's "Veep," starring former "Seinfeld" actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the vice president of the United States, is an odd comedy amalgam. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus plays a character squarely in her wheelhouse -- vain, self-deluded, prone to Elaine-like physical gestures -- who just happens to work in an office next door to the White House. The result is overly broad and narrow at the same time.

The "Veep" characters are so much bigger than life that it's impossible to believe Ms. Louis-Dreyfus' seemingly incompetent, socially inept Selina Meyer could possibly have gotten elected. But some of the specifics -- situations, sometimes as small as a look or a moment -- are so precise and on point they hit a comedic bull's-eye.

These two aspects of the show are in perpetual conflict, at least in the first three episodes HBO sent for review. If you can't buy the characters, is there any reason to stick around for the winning moments?

Some have complimented "Veep" (10 p.m. Sunday) by calling it a Beltway version of "The Larry Sanders Show," but it's easier to accept Sanders' callow, self-involved talk show host than this show's protagonist -- a vice president who can't suppress an eager smile when she learns the U.S. president has taken ill and she might have to take over.

"Veep" suffers some of the same flaws as the misguided first season of "Parks and Recreation," when Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was an incompetent loser. In later seasons, the "Parks" writers made adjustments -- giving Leslie a few victories, allowing others on the show to be the butt of jokes, too -- and that series grew into worthwhile viewing. "Veep" might do the same. It certainly begins with a strong enough cast.

Ms. Louis-Dreyfus excels at uncomfortable comedy with the best of TV's actors who aren't afraid to look like jerks. Her Selina is shameless in her shallow self-absorption.

There's a running gag in the show that mocks the office of the vice president itself -- "Did the president call?" Selina perpetually asks her assistant; the answer is always "No" -- but mostly the jokes are at the expense of the characters. In the third episode, Selina calls her scheduler to cancel a lunch with her daughter.

"Cancel the lunch that was supposed to prove there's nothing more important than Katherine because something more important than Katherine has come up," Selina orders.

Supporting characters include Gary (Tony Hale, in a role that echoes some aspects of his Buster character from "Arrested Development"), Selina's "human TelePrompTer for small talk" who caters to her every need -- providing names of a senator's children or a bottle of hand sanitizer. Chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky, grown up since the 1991 movie "My Girl") is more competent, which puts her at odds with scheming political aide Dan (Reid Scott, "My Boys") and a step above burned-out spokesman Mike (Matt Walsh, "Hung").

The president's office is often represented by Jonah (Timothy C. Simons), an odious White House liaison who constantly and ineptly hits on the young women who work in Selina's office. (He's a character you simply can't imagine working in the real White House under any administration.)

While the "Veep" characters often feel unmoored from reality -- Mike claims to have a dog but that turns out to be an excuse to get him out of staying late at the office -- their experiences, strangely, come off as believable. The hoops Selina has to jump through over the first three episodes to appease assorted politicos to organize a clean jobs commission brims with fathomable political absurdity. The same goes for a scene in episode three when Selina is told she can't get a dog because FLOTUS (first lady of the United States) intends to adopt a FDOTUS (first dog of the United States), and heaven forbid the vice president upstage the first lady.

In an era of umbrage-taking over an Etch-a-Sketch and Mommy Wars, none of the situations in "Veep" seem any more outlandish.

"Veep" creator Armando Iannucci ("In the Loop," "The Thick of It") says in HBO's press notes that the show is "not about someone who is not good at their job, it's about someone with considerable talents, who is in a situation that increasingly becomes more and more ridiculous." While the situations in "Veep" are indeed bizarre, Selina does not seem to be good at her job. In early episodes, she's overweening, vacuous and clueless about the political impact of using the word "retard."

In time, "Veep" might be able to establish Selina's bona fides so that the show presents just enough underpinnings of realism to support its comic takedowns. But it's not there yet.

Last chance to vote

Voting in the Post-Gazette's annual Keep or Cancel? poll closes at midnight Sunday. Visit post-gazette.com/tv to cast your ballot on which shows to renew and which ones to flush.

Channel surfing

HBO's much-hyped "Girls" premiered Sunday and drew 872,000 viewers in its premiere telecast, down from the 1.1 million viewers who watched lead-in "Eastbound and Down." ... Fox has ordered an 11th and 12th season of "Hell's Kitchen"; the show's 10th season begins May 29. ... A&E has renewed "Storage Wars," "Storage Wars: Texas" and "Shipping Wars" for new seasons to air this summer. ... Eli Manning will host "Saturday Night Live" May 5 with musical guest Rihanna. ... Discovery Channel has canceled "Cash Cab," the Vulture blog reports, although five unaired episodes will debut sometime in May as the show's swan song. ... FEARnet has renewed original series "Holliston" for a second season to air in summer 2013. ... The fifth and final season of DirecTV's "Damages" will debut at 9 p.m. July 11. ... Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California, will have his own weekly show on Current TV beginning in May. ... GSN will pay tribute to the late Dick Clark during episodes of "$25,000 Pyramid" he hosted, airing today at 10:30 a.m. and during a five-hour marathon of episodes that begins tonight at 7. ... The next PBS opus from filmmaker Ken Burns, "The Dust Bowl," blows onto TV Nov. 18 and 19. ... Westmoreland County native Sheila Kelley ("L.A.Law") returns to "Gossip Girl" Monday to reprise her role as Serena's devious Aunt Carol.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about early season finales, "Alcatraz" and "Top Gear." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Cafe Racer," "Raising Hope," "Kathy" and Fox's 25th anniversary. Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Girls," "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23" and BBC America's "Being Human." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.

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TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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