Have you ever looked forward to a movie or television show, and then found yourself not only not enjoying it as much as you expected, but actually disliking it (hating it) to the point where you wanted to get in your car, drive to the home of the person who recommended it, and demand an explanation? If so, then you know how I felt when I watched the first season of HBO's Veep.
Believe me, it gives me no pleasure saying this. First of all, I know how hard it is to put something together. As a playwright, I realize how hard it is to sweat out a decent script, get it read by somebody who matters, get it produced, get it cast and then, after two dozen rehearsals, have it gleefully picked apart by a theater critic who has absolutely no skin in the game. And second, Veep stars the delightful and prodigiously talented Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whom I've always admired.
So, yes, a big part of what made Veep such a hideous letdown was my own expectations. When I first saw this series advertised, I naively assumed I had tapped into the mother lode. After all, I'm a huge fan of HBO television, I love edgy satire, I love Louis-Dreyfus and I have been a political junkie since way back in high school. What's not to like?
But the problem with Veep isn't the result of inflated expectations. The problem is structural. This show, which purports to be a "political satire," has no heart. It has no fulcrum, no core, no center; it has not the barest trace of anything resembling "reality," which not only deprives it of any sense of proportion, but provides no platform from which to launch.
Without a sense of proportion, there is no opportunity for counterpoint, which reduces the whole thing to one interminably long and repetitive two-part joke: (1) we have a Vice-President who's bored, egotistical and mildly stupid, and (2) she's surrounded by a staff of moronic sycophants. Which is to say that inanity is the show's currency. It never rises one inch above that. It's 28 excruciating minutes of repetitive, inane one-liners.
In truth, even with the Louis-Dreyfus character being all those things we mentioned (bored, egotistical and stupid), there would still be potential for some clever exchanges, if only her staff weren't so abysmally dim-witted. But because everybody in the office is trying to be a comedian, they offer no push-back, no adult supervision, no solid footing of any kind. It's one untethered gag-line after another.
And there's another problem. The show seems to think that crudeness, in and of itself, is automatically funny. Listen to the lady Vice-President say those naughty words. Listen to her! What a riotously hilarious woman! Don't misunderstand. I enjoy hearing a well-chosen obscenity as much as the next guy, but the problem with Veep's vulgarity is that it seems forced and contrived and we don't believe it for a second.
A true story. I once attended a meeting where a woman executive who'd been up to her neck in business-related problems entered the room and, when casually asked how things were going, replied, "I feel like I've been shot at and missed, and shit at and it." It was a funny remark -- a bit crude and certainly out of character for her, but funny. Everybody laughed. If only Veep were half as witty as that.
Yet the critics seem to love this show. In fact, many of them have raved about it, calling it one of the better shows HBO has done in years, which puts my uncharitable comments clearly in the minority. Season Two begins next Sunday. Alas, I won't be watching.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep.