Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the vice president in HBO's "Veep."
By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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.
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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.
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