“We live in a culture now where it’s almost like we are used to being lied to,” Julia Louis-Dreyfuss said in a recent New York Times Magazine piece about her HBO series Veep – to which any thinking person can only respond, “ALMOST?” (Or hope that she delivered that line with more irony than the profile made it sound.)
Assuming we live in a culture of political lies is the premise of every smart political show on television today, from the uneven, satiric Veep to ABC’s entertainingly soapy Scandal. On last Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife, called “Pants On Fire,” ultra-shrewd political consultant Eli (Alan Cumming) told Alicia (Julianna Margulies) to stop complaining because the venal candidate (a very sleaze-bally Matthew Perry) lied about her. “Alicia, people lie. And politicians are just people,” he said, and could have added, “They lie more.”
Scandal, with Kerry Washington as political fixer Olivia Pope, is less ambitious than Veep or The Good Wife, but great fun on its own terms. Those terms would be a glossy network series with heightened drama, like another created by Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy.
Olivia’s clients aren’t always innocent – there was the madam who kept Congressional secrets – but her job is simply to clean up their public relations messes while dealing with an emotional crisis of her own. Like a much savvier Monica Lewinsky, Olivia had an affair with the President (Tony Goldwyn), and she was shattered to find out he lied to her about other women. Like Alicia, the ultra-shrewd political wife, Olivia knows we live in a culture of lies, but can’t quite lose the idealistic belief that the worst lies won’t be about or spoken to her. That is the ultimate betrayal.
Personal drama drives Scandal. But the culturally revealing fact is that a mainstream network show, one that can’t afford to flout conventional beliefs, simply assumes that, as the genius hero of House has always warned, “Everybody lies,” especially politicians. This is television for an audience long accustomed to the inside-D.C. perspective of Hardball and other shouting-head shows, who were raised on films like D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s now-classic The War Room, which made political consultants James Carville and George Stephanopoulos the heroes.
Political dramas on television owe everything to Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing, of course, with its insiders’ perspective on the ugly, manipulative, horse-trading process of governing. (Dramatizing process is what Sorkin does best, an approach that literally gave us inside-baseball with Moneyball.) In Veep, scenes of the vice-president and her staff walking down the hall in a fast-talking gaggle are pure West Wing homage. But in The West Wing the manipulations and compromises were, at least for the Bartlet administration and the show’s other good guys, part of a plan to reach idealistic goals.
In these new series, the good guys are as blisteringly tough as anyone, and idealism has much less to do with it than ambition. Olivia is perfectly willing to threaten and blackmail a woman she thinks falsely accused the president of an affair. How does she make amends when she realizes the woman wasn’t lying? She offers free damage-control advice – no small thing in a culture of deceit.
And Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfuss’ character in Veep is actually quite unlikeable – it’s the first thing you notice and have to get past. She can terrorize her staff; she ignores her college-age daughter. In a shrewd touch, she has the ultimate politician’s personality, deep insecurity coupled with a blazing ego – which is funny but not a very good excuse.
The tone of Veep is so unsteady, though, it’s fair to wonder if we aren’t meant to like her a bit more than we do. Armando Iannucci’s film In the loop was a brilliant London-meets-Washington satire, but here the tone flounders between pointed and broad humor.
There are terrific small touches and lines. Selina’s green-friendly pose is compromised when a cornstarch spoon melts in a coffee cup at a reception, so she worriedly asks her aide, Amy (beautifully played by Anna Chlumsky as the one person with a shred of common sense left) whether she should use plastic or cornstarch. “Stay away from both,” Amy warns, “The utensils are politicized.”
Yet one episode is built around an excruciating, obvious plot about a photo-op at a family-run yogurt shop that turns into a big diarrhea joke. Even the title seems wavering. The word “Veep” sounds like the canned political language no one uses in real life, yet characters on the show toss it around seriously.
Even Veep at its broadest and Scandal at its soapiest, though, reflect something profoundly true about the culture: we are all cynics when it comes to observing Washington, where pants are on fire in all sorts of way.