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'Veep' HBO Review: Political Comedy Misses The Mark

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A political career involves a great deal of compromise. Everybody wants a return on what they invest in, whether it's a bill, a policy, an appointment or a favor. Getting something for nothing isn't impossible, but it's more rare than a polite and insightful current-events discussion on cable news. 

Don't take this as an insult -- it isn't meant as one -- but TV viewers aren't that different from political types: We want something in return for our investment of time. Despite its shiny credentials, however, "Veep" (10 p.m. ET Sunday, HBO) doesn't offer much in the way of rewards.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, who is billed as a "rising star" of an unnamed party in HBO's press materials. It's hard to see how Selina rose very far -- to the office of vice-president, in fact -- given her inability to manage her chaotic staff, project leadership qualities or recognize that she's curt and verging on mean most of the time.

None of that would be a problem if the character had compensatory qualities that made you understand why some people, at some point, strongly believed in her. Charisma, personal charm, a folksy personality and/or a really great haircut have certainly gotten any number of politicians much further than they realistically should have gone.

Selina's hair looks just fine, but otherwise, her career seems inexplicable and there are no reasons to care about anything that happens to her or the people around her. Selina herself is your typical clueless boss -- a very familiar type on the television landscape -- and not a particularly memorable one at that, and the members of her staff are similarly limited. Each character responds to challenges and setbacks exactly as you expect them to: Anna Chlumsky's tightly-wound chief of staff swears and shouts; Tony Hale's ineffectual personal assistant fumbles minor tasks and weakly protests bad treatment; Matt Walsh's beleaguered press secretary flails and complains; Reid Shane's sharklike aide engineers shady solutions, etc. The squabbles among the thinly drawn staffers quickly become predictable in the first three episodes of the comedy.

Let me be clear: I don't have to like any of these people, and given the D.C. setting, I didn't particularly expect to (in my limited experience of Capitol types, their ability to take themselves seriously is usually their most impressive accomplishment). And I like the cringe-inducing comedy of awkwardness as much as the next person, but "Veep" simply isn't particularly fresh or funny, and most of its jokes are telegraphed from a long way away. For instance, if Selina's stated goal in an episode is to show her daughter that she's a priority in the politician's life, you can be sure that exactly the opposite will happen. "Famous people can be self-absorbed and oblivious" doesn't strike me as a news flash worthy of the CNN crawl.

There are things that could have made this enterprise worthwhile: If "Veep" offered amusing or acerbic insights into the political process, if the show had a range of supporting characters who embroidered Selina's world with memorable goofiness or incompetence, or if political and personal situations progressed in unexpected and amusing ways, there would be a reason for this show to exist. Despite the clear talents of the assembled cast, "Veep" merely reinforces what most people already think and revisits territory many other politically-oriented movies and TV shows have thoroughly covered. Its central assumption -- that the political process is broken and every person in Washington, D.C., from the lowliest staffers right up to the top players, is simply out for him or herself -- appears to negate the show's own purpose for existing. If these people are so worthless, why are we paying attention to them?

Wouldn't it be even a little counterintuitive to show the occasional flash of belief or shred of idealism? Even if "Veep" creator Armando Iannucci and executive producer (and former New York Times op-ed writer) Frank Rich think such concepts are intrinsically unfunny (despite "Parks and Recreation" having proved otherwise), they don't have anything particularly new to say about Washington's insulated political classes and their ambitious underlings. What powered Iannucci's best work, the scathing BBC satire "The Thick of It," was a volcanic performance by Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, an unsurpassed maestro of take-no-prisoners politics and awe-inspiring profanity. Tucker overshadowed the ineffectual minister he was allegedly assisting, but the point is, that show had a center to pivot around, and everything in the BBC comedy felt sharper and less tired than the strangely deflated antics in "Veep."

Part of the problem is, despite her ample comic skills, Louis-Dreyfus simply doesn't project a charismatic presence, nor does she possess an undeniable appeal that holds your interest even when you think her character is doing dumb, pathetic or unpleasant things. Perhaps we're supposed feel sorry for Selina, given that she's an overlooked and more-or-less useless functionary whose own boss won't give her the time of day, but the president's lack of interest in his No. 2 seems more and more understandable over time.

Floating over the whole affair is the faint but noticeable odor of sanctimony. This is a show made by and for people who know better than the small-minded, selfish scrabblers they're observing, and there's no real need to congratulate a show that does such a thorough job of congratulating itself.