A Heartbeat Away

Photo: Bill Gray/Courtesy of HBO

If Hollywood is high school with money, Washington is high school with power; or so it seems in Veep, the HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the vice-president of the United States, from British writer-producer Armando Iannucci (New York writer-at-large Frank Rich serves as an executive producer on the show). All of the characters are overgrown ­adolescents, bitchy, pouty, and narcissistic. And as it happens, they’re employed in a field that equals showbiz in its immaturity, treachery, and obsession with surfaces.

There are ongoing plotlines threaded through the first few episodes: An old ­pervert senator dies, forcing Selina and everyone else in the Capitol to pretend to have loved him; Selina tries to fill out a “Clean Jobs” task force in the Senate by staffing it with a retired oil executive who pleases neither environmental groups nor the petroleum lobby. But these are mostly background for sitcom shenanigans enacted by characters that are, virtually to a man and woman, either pathetic or viciously petty. Arrested Development’s Tony Hale plays Gary, the vice-president’s body man and chief assistant, a lovable wretch whose foot is permanently lodged in his mouth. Anna Chlumsky is Amy, the veep’s chief of staff, who always has one eye on her smartphone. Reid Scott’s Dan Egan is a sadistic but resourceful political fixer whom Selina ends up hiring because he’s “a shit” and “I need a shit.” Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) is the world-weary press spokesman who pretends to have a beloved dog so that he can use it as an excuse to escape unpleasant social obligations (his officemates call the imaginary canine a “bull-shitsu”). The insufferably smug White House liaison Jonah (Tim Simons, a lanky giant) wields his West Wing access like a cudgel and tries to leverage his proximity to power to score dates with interns, and with Amy, who finds him loathsome.

Despite the ironically buoyant, West Wing–style orchestral score that introduces each episode, Veep’s president is an unseen presence, a human wrench who keeps tossing himself into Selina’s clumsy political machine. At times the series feels like a live-action version of Doonesbury, but minus the sociopolitical context, and with baroque profanity and scatological metaphors. “If you can get a Senate-­reform bill through the place it’s designed to reform,” a senator says, “that would be like persuading a guy to fist himself!”

As Selina, a former senator, Louis-Dreyfus draws on her loopy, self-involved Seinfeld persona but adds hints of cynicism and brittleness. Everyone around Selina is likewise selfish and image-­obsessed. This is a shark-tank world of a type that HBO specializes in; the ego-warring over perks, loyalty, and respect might remind you of the cable channel’s other classic half-hour studies in bad behavior: The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your ­Enthusiasm, and the brilliant, short-lived Lisa Kudrow ­vehicle The Comeback. But the first three episodes of Veep don’t suggest we’re going to see those series’ depth and poignancy. Iannucci has a tactically limited view of political skulduggery, the type showcased in the insufferably cutesy columns of Maureen Dowd. It’s all rather weightless: just your usual sitcom-style misunderstandings and bruised egos and “complications ensue,” with no sense that anything larger is at stake. When Amy absentmindedly signs her name to a condolence card for the slimeball senator’s family, prompting Gary to try to steal it back, you may feel as if you’ve stumbled into a deleted dream sequence from I Love Lucy.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself—the world can always use one more ­amusing sitcom—but for all its madcap goofiness, Veep doesn’t say or add up to much—which, in a way, suggests it’s the right satire for a political era marked by stupid feuds, inertia, and superficiality. “What would you say were the two biggest campaign mistakes?” Selina asks Mike. “You looked tired a lot, and the hat,” he ­replies. Alas, he’s probably right.

HBO. Sundays, 10 p.m.

A Heartbeat Away