“Veep” has a little bit of a problem. The world of politics is not a place that most people would like to be right now. Sure, there are still some young people who fantasize about making a difference in government, but most Americans are flat-out fed up with politicians. Currently, close to 80% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. But without knowing what goes on behind the closed doors of Congress and the White House, at least we can delude ourselves that there are people there who are still trying to do the right thing. Even if the system is flawed, we can have faith that our basic humanity is not the problem.
For the first two episodes, “Veep” has painted a cynical but familiar view of politics. We have watched Vice-President Selina Meyer try to make her policy initiatives work by appeasing disparate political interests and tap-dancing her way out of awkward situations. But I have been disappointed that she seems completely uninterested in how her policy initiatives affect ordinary Americans. Still her situation was dire enough that I could laugh with – and more frequently at – her. She and her staff remained sympathetic.
But in tonight’s third episode, Selina crossed over the line into unsympathetic territory. Professionally, her life is still in shambles. Selina is still trying to appease both Big Oil and the environmentalist senator she needs to champion her filibuster reform bill. She and her staff thought they had a good solution: put an ex-oil guy on the Clean Jobs Task Force. But as it turns out, the ex-oil guy is too oily for the senator and not oily enough for Big Oil.
It is disheartening to see an issue as important as the environment treated only as a political football. Of course, we can give “Veep” points for realism: that is traditionally how the environment is treated in Washington. But let’s compare “Veep” to say, “The Daily Show,” another comedic effort that draws attention to the failures of Washington. “The Daily Show” is not depressing, though it highlights the same hypocrisies as “Veep,” because we feel like Jon Stewart is one of us. He is on our side. “Veep” has so far not offered the audience an entry point into the story.
While Selina tries to put out the oil fire, her college-age daughter Catherine comes to town for a visit, and her treatment at the hands of the vice-president is what makes this the darkest episode yet. First, Selina blows off lunch with her daughter to deal with the Clean Jobs problem. Later, at a party celebrating Selina’s 20th year in Washington, while Selina is working with her staff to try to change the name of an upcoming hurricane to something other than Selina, Catherine calls her out for her bullshit.
Catherine, for all intents and purposes, represents the American people and serves as that much-needed entry point for the audience. She is not a politician; she seems to have little tolerance for the phoniness of politics. We relate to her because she is so deeply suffering as a result of Selina’s actions and her role in the Washington political machine – just like the American people. When Selina roundly ignores her daughter’s concerns and the show ends with nothing resembling a resolution, we are left in a dark and unsettling place.
“Veep” does not have anything to say about modern politics that has not been said before. It’s a workplace comedy. But television comedy only works when we like the characters in the show. This is not rocket science. It is pretty clear that “Veep” will rise and fall on the likeability of Selina Meyer. When you have Julia Louis-Dreyfus in your show and you have a likeability problem, it is a sign that you are doing something wrong.