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Veep Doesn't Work as a Political Satire (But It's Really Funny Anyway)

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Hammocked between the wildly popular new season of Game of Thrones and Lena Dunham's Girls, which has inspired some interesting discussion of how television portrays the experience of young women (among other things), Veep, HBO's new comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as supremely ineffectual U.S. Vice President Selina Meyer, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Even accounting for the divergence of critical opinion surrounding the series, I would suggest that the reason we don't talk about Veep is because we don't often think too much about shows whose primary merit is simply being very funny. And Veep, in its first three weeks, has been one of the most consistently hilarious series on television.

With that in mind, I'll go ahead and dispense with an important concession: for a show that's set in a location as particular as the office of the Vice President, Veep barely functions as a political satire. Yes, it's cynical about the political process, it plays a bit with the basic uselessness of the Vice Presidential position, and it rests a lot of its humor on the fundamental incompetence of D.C. power players. But its characters, including Louis-Dreyfus's Meyer and her inner circle of lackeys played by Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky and Matt Walsh, exist so far outside of reality that the satire lacks any teeth. Further, Meyer's lack of a defined political party and vague policy positions (like "clean jobs" and "filibuster reform"), don't universalize the political commentary so much as render it targetless.

Instead, though, Veep works as an incredibly well-drawn farce, a fairly traditional office comedy that sharply executes almost every basic sitcom beat. In Sunday's episode, Meyer's college-aged daughter comes to visit right in the midst of a political fiasco involving a controversial appointment to the Vice President's Clean Jobs Commission. The episode seamlessly intertwines the machinations involved with appeasing two separate special interests and Meyer's failure to emotionally connect with a child whom she has basically neglected for the duration of her political career. Each episode manages the same kind of structure, as the Vice Presidential team develops an idea, bungles it, then nimbly designs a workaround only to have the rug pulled out at the last possible moment. Remove the Washington inside baseball, and the employer-employee dynamics (Meyer is harsh on her charges despite being hopelessly in their debt) would work in much the same way, and the same sense of us-against-the-world teamwork (even among characters as fundamentally inept as these) would not be out of place in lots of office settings.

As Veep relies pretty heavily on sitcom predictability -- this is a series that zigs when you expect it to zig, so to speak -- it is distinguished by creator Armando Iannucci's writing (also on display in the BBC series The Thick of It and its filmic pseudo-adaptation In the Loop) and the brilliant timing of its central cast. Hale has a certain effete charm as Gary, the Vice President's "body man," Walsh's Mike is a particularly jaded personality who dodges responsibility whenever possible, and Chlumsky's chief of staff tries to keep the ship afloat despite her own errors in judgment. Along with Louis-Dreyfus (who is always at her funniest when conveying disdain, as the Meyer character allows her to do frequently), the main cast has an incredibly diverse skill set, and in an environment where plot is largely irrelevant, watching the group bat one liners around is a pretty satisfying experience.

As some have suggested that Veep's time slot partner Girls is a kind of spiritual cousin to Louie (I think rightly, not least because of the central authorial voice of both shows), Veep can be read as a more writerly relative to Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both series rely a great deal more on form and predictable structure than on plot, and a typical episode of both shows involves pretty much the same arc of near success and inevitable failure. While Curb's improvised dialogue allows a bit more for possibility and a certain sense of comedic abandon, it also leads to inconsistency -- the jokes are simply not battle tested, and often don't land. Veep can't boast the same spontaneous comedic highs, but the dialogue written by Iannucci and his staff is so tight and fast (highlighted by some of the most inventive off-color language likely to be heard anywhere), and in such capable hands, that it works dependably on an almost primal level.

Of course, humor is subjective, and as Veep's comedic voice is its central asset, it probably won't be for all tastes. However, its sense of humor is a great deal more universal that it appears at first glance. Maybe Iannucci and the rest of the Veep team doesn't have much to say, but if they can say nothing with this kind of comedic pace, that's just fine.