Julia Louis-Dreyfus is just perfect in Veep. She gets to show off the spiky claws beneath her patrician finesse. The obvious way to play Veep would be to make Louis-Dreyfus a folksy heroine, one with more common sense or populist heart than her enemies. But she isn’t one. Her character isn’t any more sincere or well-meaning than any other D.C. hack. She isn’t even smarter. She just has a bigger office. And because she’s played by Louis-Dreyfus, she’s funnier. In Veep, she approaches government with the famous Seinfeld code: no hugging, no learning.
The years haven’t been too kind to the cast of Seinfeld, and even though Louis-Dreyfus was the only one of the gang with a hit show, there was a kind of failure in The New Adventures of Old Christine. Nobody wanted to see her turn into another sitcom drone, and it was sad to see Louis-Dreyfus asking audiences to feel sorry for her – perhaps the last thing she should ever be asked to do. Even the title was a humiliation, defining her character as a jilted sad-sack divorcee, whereas Elaine would just roll her eyes and say, “I hate the good ones.”
On Veep, she’s back to her old tricks, as a neurotic politician stuck in the lamest gig in government. Louis-Dreyfus vibrates with an agitated buzz of energy, like a tuning fork giving off waves of disgust. Yet she always keeps her well-bred sense of detachment, fussing over trivial everyday dilemmas while blithely waltzing past any actual setbacks. That’s how she made Elaine cool, no matter what frustrations she suffered. And on Veep, she has even more to be frustrated about.
She plays Vice President Selina Meyer, serving a president who’s never seen or named. Nobody says if Meyer is a Democrat or a Republican, so I guess she’s just a politician from the kind of party that elects female, environmentalist, divorced and apparently Jewish vice presidents. Meyer now has a job where she can’t close any deals and all she can do is complain about her state of “POTUS interruptus.”
Veep comes from Armando Iannucci, who did the acclaimed British political satires In the Loop and The Thick of It. It has a very English fast-talking pace, and a very English disinterest in America’s partisan and religious wars. So Veep isn’t strictly a political satire. It doesn’t bother with the sentimentality Americans like to profess over the noble ideals of democracy. Iannucci doesn’t present anything approaching nobility – or even the expectation of nobility – to the political process. No one here is trying to do the right thing. Politics is merely a game of who’s going to get humiliated, and who’s going to get a kick rubbing their face in it.
The characters are all D.C. lifers. They refer to the citizens they serve as “the normalistas.” They’re far removed from the America outside D.C., but there’s no hint that things would improve if you sent real Americans to Washington; on Veep, the problem with Washington is that it is real America.
Like Aquaman, Sammy Hagar, the Mets, Tito Jackson, bacon doughnuts or Sisqó, the vice president is inherently funny. For Americans, the job sums up the futility of our national dream, the one about working your way to the top only to find yourself in the most impotent gig in Washington. That takes a toll, which is why vice presidents end up turning into pompous clowns who argue with sixth-graders about how to spell “potato” or blame drug abuse on Ringo Starr. The job induces its own uniquely American form of dumb.
That’s why we laugh at them. If you’re a citizen who feels suckered, duped or crushed under the heel of your own petty vanities, defeated by all your own best efforts, you can relate to the veep. And it’s hard to imagine anyone could evoke that predicament as vividly as Louis-Dreyfus.
This story is from the May 24th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.