“Veep” – Season 1, Episode 5: “Nicknames”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is always at her funniest when she’s pissed off. She can do a lot as an actress (she specializes in desperation), but her anger has a wonderfully madcap, absurd quality to it. In this regard, she has always been held back by the limits of network television. Here on HBO, she can let her angry flag fly, and it is during these fleeting moments that “Veep” transcends its contrivances and soars.

Last week, Selina lost her top at the much-despised POTUS liaison Jonah. This week, she takes out her anger on another frustratingly incompetent entity – her entire staff. Hinted at in last week’s episode, the Clean Jobs Initiative is officially tabled by POTUS in favor of a vague “fiscal responsibility” bill. Of course, this one is clearly not her staff’s fault, and although they receive the brunt of her anger, Selina is really mad at the vagaries of the system, in which politics trumps good policy. What’s worse is that Selina is actually forced to kill the bill herself when an amendment carrying its key initiatives ends in a 50-50 tie on the Senate floor. As VP, Selina is the tiebreaking vote. The irony here is thick: for the show’s first five episodes, Selina has sought power and an important role in the process of governing. But now forced to choose between moving an important bill and killing it to ensure her political future….well, that’s no choice at all.

I’ve gotten pretty tired of reading pundits writing online about how “Veep” gets the details of the VP experience wrong. It seems that most of DC has weighed in on this by now, and I don’t think it is usually a particularly interesting criticism to make.  Having said that, allow me to briefly pile on and explain how the dilemma faced in this episode would never have occurred in real life. The president would have informed Selina if he was going to veto the bill when it reached his desk (in which case she could easily vote against it and not feel like she personally killed it) or whether he planned to sign it into law (in which case, she would not be voting against his wishes). Never would a VP be forced to make a deciding vote – and actually have the free will to determine the bill’s future.

For such a cynical storyline, this episode is filled with some pretty standard sit-com hijinx, most of which are courtesy of Jonah, who continues to prove the show’s best comic invention. A legend in his own mind, he seems to speak only in buzzwords of his own creation: “fructose intolerance” and “fuckload of bread” are two of his better ones. In this episode, we actually learn what he does outside of the office, and it’s a welcome change. It’s odd that we now know him better than any other central characters. Regardless, he is the comic gift that keeps on giving, and we should welcome a more featured role for him.

Timothy Simons as “Jonah”

There were some other laughs in this episode, but it will prove ultimately forgettable because we didn’t learn anything about new about these characters. Selina choosing politics over policy may sound like it has the makings of good drama, but for a show that has roots in cynicism, tonight’s episode did not feel like progress. It was merely restating its theme.

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