In 1999, The West Wing debuted on American television. That political drama teleported viewers inside the White House and, with the rapid-fire dialogue, walk-and-talk scenes, and cock-eyed optimism signature of creator Aaron Sorkin, let viewers be flies on the walls of the Oval Office. Fifteen years later, when you say “political drama” the response you’re likely to get is, “Which one?” House of Cards has been brand-defining content for Netflix; Scandal is the critically acclaimed crown jewel in show runner Shonda Rhimes’s ABC empire; Homeland is the Showtime series that drew Claire Danes back into television. It seems that political is the new black — at least as far as TV dramas are concerned.
On the comedy side, the subject hasn’t fared quite as well, though. USA’s dramedy Political Animals only ran for six episodes. NBC’s 1600 Penn managed a barely better 13. Amazon’s Alpha House, warmly received by critics and audiences, has yet to really break through into the public consciousness. It seems like the political comedy’s best hope right now is HBO’s Veep.
But Veep isn’t just political comedy’s best hope. It’s comedy’s best hope. One of (if not the) funniest half-hours currently on television, the series stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as overly ambitious and woefully inadequate Vice President Selina Meyer. It also combines the cringe humor of Curb Your Enthusiasm with the 12-punchlines-a-page rapier wit of Arrested Development to create a portrait of Washington, D.C., that’s not about whether you win or lose (everyone always loses in this game), but rather, how public, embarrassing, and potentially career-ending that loss is.
Veep has developed a reputation for its insult comedy. The barbs exchanged between Louis-Dreyfus’s Meyer and her team are Shakespearean in their accuracy and cruelty. And if the witticisms are the icing, the cake is the ensemble. The vice president’s team is composed of Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), the vice president’s high-strung chief of staff; Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), Selina’s doormat of a personal aide; Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), the VP’s director of communications who has perfected apathy into an art form; Dan Egan (Reid Scott), the deputy director of communications who would bleed slime if you cut him open; Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw), the veep’s personal assistant who is so on top of her game she often seems like she would make a better vice president than the vice president herself; and Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simmons), the White House liaison to the vice president’s office, collectively despised by all others on board.
These characters are not stupid, but they find themselves, episode after episode, burnt to a crisp by every fire-breathing dragon that crosses their path, often before they even have time to pull out their swords. In other words, they’re made to look stupid every time they fail to solve an impossible problem. And therein lies the brilliance of the show. In House of Cards and Scandal, Washington is a Greek tragedy. In Veep, the city is Wonderland and our vice president is Alice, unable to navigate, because how does one traverse through a land without logic? As impossible as the Washington, D.C., of Veep seems, it’s the city on a hill that most resembles the nation’s capitol I recognize from real life. This show hits too close to home. And that’s the best compliment I can pay it.
Though the series is a multiple Emmy winner (both Louis-Dreyfus and Hale have taken home statues for their roles), the show still only nets about a million viewers a week. Here’s hoping that in its third season (which began April 6) brings more converts to the flock. We who love this show are a lucky cult indeed.
Veep airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. Visit hbo.com/veep for info.