Film and Television Features


This week, Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s TV Critic, finally broke down and admitted that HBO’s series Veep, now in its second season, is actually a pretty decent show.  Shocking.  You take one of Britain’s leading political satirists and marry him with one of America’s strongest comic actresses and what comes out is a bitingly funny TV series.  Who would have guessed?  Unfortunately, the entertainment media hierarchy has been praising another show (which shall remain nameless – my rancor at its critical success has been bordering on obsession and I’m advised it is unhealthy.  Moving on) on the same network, they’ve missed the one that was throwing the sharpest jabs at the most dismaying reality of American life at the turn of the 21st century – our ineffective and dysfunctional political system.  Veep’s creator, Armando Iannucci, has already skewered our cousins across the Pond decisively and in similar fashion in his BBC series The Thick of It, and expanded his attack to the US in his brilliant feature film, In the Loop.  The show’s star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has spent the years after the finale of Seinfeld searching for a vehicle worthy of her comedic talents; a fate shared by her ex-costars.  Only on guest spots on Larry David’s refreshingly acerbic Curb Your Enthusiasm, did George Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus generate the belly laughs they used to routinely get in days of yore.  This is because one crucial vein of comedic inspiration the networks try to avoid is anger, and these actors shine when they are on the edge of control.  In Iannucci, she has found a creator whose vitriol is without peer on American television, network or otherwise.

If you’re uncomfortable with insults, it’s best you look elsewhere for entertainment.  Iannucci is the reigning king of the foul-mouthed, referential put-down.  Someday there will be a compendium of Iannucci-series insults released and it will fill several volumes with spines that read, for example, “Cunt-Related, L-Q”.  There are so many, coming so fast and furious, that it’s hard to keep track or list favorites.  One of the best came from In The Loop, when "the crossest man in Scotland", Senior Press Officer Jamie McDonald, played by Paul Higgins, turns to a midlevel bureaucrat and yells “Shut it, Love Actually!”  Another great movie reference comes from Veep – “Ok, every which way but douche.  I want you to answer my question now.”  It’s interesting that this omnipresent contempt becomes the perfect vehicle for political satire.  I don’t know if this would have worked 50 years ago – not because of the language, but because back then people thought their government actually functioned.  Now, after Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan’s attitude and Clinton’s blow job, cynicism is the prevailing sentiment where politics is concerned.  Stewart and Colbert mock stupid politicians and the brain-dead media that cover them, but scratch the surface of their comedy and you discover a well of hope underneath.  This hope has spilled over into activism, including rallies and a flirty presidential run, and is what makes them extraordinarily popular in this country.  For despite the cynicism and near hatred of government rampant in the US, there is a deeper strain of optimism in the collective psyche which is too old and deeply rooted to be cut away completely, like an old tree stump that’s too hard to deal with.  That’s why Veep will never be a big hit for HBO, and Iannucci is destined to top out as a cult hero in the US.  He never even hints that someone will eventually swoop in and make it all better or things might magically work out in the end.  Unlike the Comedy Central crew, there is no figure sitting above it all smirking knowingly, as the stand-in for all right-thinking people.  On this show, everyone is lost, confused, manipulative, angry, bitter, power-mad, and narcissistic.  Any new character added to the mix simply takes on a different shade of asshole, filling out a multicolored quilt of shitiness.  You never knew how many variations of self-obsessed jerk were possible until you spend a while in Iannucci’s universe. 

That’s what makes Veep the comedy of the moment, because we live in an ever expanding cesspool of selfishness in our private lives and dysfunction in the public sphere.  When you go to the supermarket, perusing the various cans of beans for sale, and you are accosted by a fellow consumer who politely says “excuse me”, and quickly steps into the very spot where you were standing to get a better look at the beans, your beans, because the idea of waiting for you to make your shopping decision never occurs to them, or when 90% of the American public want background checks on gun sales so that the criminally insane will at least have to get their guns from black market dealers out of suitcases in hotel rooms, but the Congress thinks that's a bridge too far, then you realize you need Armando and his woodchipper wit around to eviscerate it all.