I had some hope for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ show Veep on HBO. The commercials had some funny moments and it looked like it might be a no-holds-barred satirical look at Washington. I watched the first two episodes, but this morning I realized that the third episode had slipped off the DVR before I could watch it, and I didn’t even mind. Oh well.
The show follows the trials and tribulations of Vice President Selina Meyer, played by Louis-Dreyfus. From the very brief title sequence we can see that she was an early leader in the presidential primary, but eventually lost and settled for the veep slot.
After watching the first episode, in which Louis-Dreyfus’ vice president deals with the fallout of using the word “retard” at a policy announcement, I thought the show had promise. The character of Dan Egan, an amoral but seemingly very competent staffer, was funny and provided some great lines.
The second episode, however, dealt with a supposedly hilarious photo event at a yogurt shop, at which the VP developed symptoms from the flu. I thought maybe a show dealing with politics and the vice presidency could possibly make it two entire episodes before resorting to bodily function humor, but apparently that proved too taxing for the writers of Veep.
Watching the first episode, I thought maybe the character of Dan Egan was supposed to provide a contrast to the idealistic members of Selina’s staff. But apparently the funny thing was supposed to be that they are all amoral careerists, and Egan just happens to be competent. But then he looked pretty incompetent in the second episode as well.
The real problem, however, is that Veep refuses to actually take a stand about anything. Is Selina Meyer a Democrat? Is she a Republican? Unknown. I guess the point of not letting us know is that everyone in Washington is a big phony, regardless of party.
Let’s look at the most successful scripted political show of all time: The West Wing. President Bartlet was a Democrat. His staff members were idealistic and unapologetic Democrats and the show took a liberal position on issues. It often presented Republicans as good people who were honest, but philosophically opposed to the president’s agenda. It wasn’t afraid to stand for something. It ran for 7 years and was always one of the shows nominated for awards each year.
Now let’s look at a couple of shows that followed it. Mister Sterling was a show created by former West Wing producer Lawrence O’Donnell. It starred Josh Brolin as a US Senator from California, appointed to replace a disgraced Democrat. The show deliberately and pointedly made him an Independent rather than a Democrat, a fact which was supposedly unknown until after his appointment and which came as a huge shock to the Democratic governor who appointed him. It went out of its way to show the Democratic Party as being run by corrupt insiders. The wishy-washiness didn’t sit well. It was canceled after 10 episodes.
Two years later, ABC decided to try their hand at a political drama with Commander in Chief starring Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen. President Allen was dealing with a lot, having risen to the presidency from the vice presidency, and facing congressional leaders who felt she was unqualified for the job. She was also an Independent, not a Democrat or a Republican. We wouldn’t want to offend anyone, and we are appealing to everyone! The show was canceled after 19 episodes.
It’s not just that these situations were wildly implausible. Can anyone imagine the Democratic Party supporting the appointment of a Senator who was not a confirmed Democrat? Can anyone imagine a president selecting an Independent as Vice President? People are used to suspending disbelief when watching TV shows. It’s that the implausibility resulted not from an attempt to make a story more exciting, but out of a desire to appeal to more people by not offending either side. It doesn’t work.
It is so obvious that Veep wants to be edgy and controversial, but they can’t even take a stand on determining the party affiliation of the main characters in the show. If the point is supposed to be that it doesn’t matter, that’s fine. But it’s not exactly a new idea. There is nothing edgy about sitting in the middle and saying both sides suck. It’s the opposite of edgy, by the definition of, you know, edge.