“Veep” Sets the Right Tone

In a scene from a season 2 episode of “Curb your Enthusiasm,” Larry David is pitching a new show idea to his old colleague Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She suggests they pitch it to HBO, and when Larry asks why, she tells him that she wants to curse. “I want to say ‘fuck,’” Louis-Dreyfus says, “and ‘cocksucker.’”

Louis-Dreyfus curses up a storm in “Veep,” a much-hyped, highly-anticipated political comedy from her favorite network. As vice-president Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus basically plays Elaine Benes in the West Wing. She’s charming, but not quite as charming as she thinks, and this is what gets her into trouble. She is what passes for earnest in Washington; she lies, cheats, and steals, but since her mistakes are so public and huge, we find ourselves rooting for her a little bit.

Assisting Meyer in her official duties is her chief-of-staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky from “My Girl,” now all grown-up), her body man Gary (Tony Hale, who I can’t look at without seeing Buster Bluth from “Arrested Development”), and communications director Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh, who was a founding member of the comedic troupe Upright Citizens Brigade and has had bit parts in dozens of comedies since then). All three avail themselves well in the pilot, but it is Walsh who gets the biggest laughs as the salty, slightly incompetent communications staffer fending off a challenge from a young, new staffer angling for his job.

The pilot is a little spotty in general because it all seems a bit manufactured. Selina is trying to push her Clean Jobs initiative but is sidetracked significantly by a scandal of her own making. Forced by the White House to cut the bulk of a speech at the last minute, Selina has to improvise and ends up making a joke at the expense of the mentally disabled community. The creators of “Veep” have taken every opportunity to make sure we know that Selina is in no way modeled on the current gaffe-prone vice-president…but it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to imaging Joe Biden doing the same thing. But “Veep” is not specific enough to criticize any one political figure. If there is to be a serious criticism of our political system, it appears that “Veep” will lampoon the soft targets of clumsy politicians and ambitious young staffers.

Still, “Veep” has promise. What gives a sitcom staying power is not just good writing or jokes or a charismatic star. Great sitcoms have unique relationships between its characters. Think of Sam and Diane in “Cheers.” Larry and Artie in “The Larry Sanders Show.” Or heck, even Jerry and Elaine in “Seinfeld.” Those relationships created tension that buoyed the shows and kept the interest of the audience. The strongest relationship in “Veep” is the one between Selina and the President, whom we never see. The most electrifying moments in the show are when the president’s jerk liaison shows up to strut his stuff around the office, and Selina’s staff roundly mocks him, even though we all can tell that they want to be where he is. We can connect to that. At heart, “Veep” is a workplace sitcom, and it works because we like the people.

But there is something very cynical about this show. We’ve come a long way since “The West Wing,” the last high-profile political series on television. That show, which probably inspired a majority of current Hill staffers to enter politics, was an idealized version of the Clinton administration. In other words, it was the last gasp of the liberal movement. The Obama campaign may have co-opted the words and images of that movement, but the perception of Washington has not changed. “Veep” is a comedy for our era, in which ideals have no place and all that matters in politics is the game.

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