“Veep” may be set in the world of politics, but after three episodes, the HBO series has more in common with the modern strain of “Office”-style embarrassment comedies than creator Armando Iannucci’s other trenchant satires. The situations are the same: In each episode of “Veep” to date, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ gaffe-prone Vice President Selina Meyer tries to use her office toward some productive end — not necessarily for good itself so much as glory — only to be swept up in an uncontrollable tide of politics that makes restoring the status quo the best possible outcome for her, just like the hapless ministers of Iannucci’s Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship on his BBC series “The Thick of It.”
The difference is that the ministers of DoSAC are under constant threat from the prime minister’s enforcer, the menacing, Machiavellian and phenomenally profane communications director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). In fact, the series opens with Tucker canning the current Minister of Social Affairs, Iannucci’s shaky camera holding on Capaldi’s shark-like stare as he goes in for the kill.
Two episodes later, the minister’s replacement, Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham), nearly loses his job because his personal ownership of an unrented flat clashes with the department’s position on urban housing. “This is madness! I just own a flat. I haven’t raped somebody,” he cries. At the end, he’s prepared to hand in his resignation when he’s saved by a fall guy. His status quo is restored, but not before the episode builds gravity and tension as an innocuous circumstance snowballs into an actual threat. By series three, the latest to air, DoSAC is on its third minister.
“Veep” has other priorities. Since no one is a plausible threat to Selina Meyer, she has only her dignity to lose. In the first episode, the president’s office prevents her from going through with a speech at the last minute, and as she treads water, she uses the phrase “hoisted by our own retard” — at which the momentarily friendly audience goes cold. In the second, she gets a stomach virus during a photo op at a frozen yogurt joint, culminating in an embarrassing departure.
Selina is more self-aware than David Brent, Michael Scott, Valerie Cherish and the other cringe-comedy kings, but she still risks only embarrassment. Suddenly the stakes are a lot lower, and with them, the reach of the show’s central argument. “The Thick of It” and its spinoff film “In the Loop” are merciless in their case that politics is dangerously arbitrary and government a Kafkaesque bureaucracy turned volatile doomsday machine. “Veep” finds politics undignified. It’s like going from the “Book of Job” to “Game Change.”
At least “Veep” is good at what it does. Everywhere the camera looks is another vulgarity undercutting the glamour of power. Selina’s aide Gary (Tony Hale) addresses a particularly tall lectern with a short stool, anti-suicide windows trap the vice president in a hot office, a recreation center is named after a senator notorious for sexual harassment. “When a sexual harasser dies, we sign his wife’s card, okay? That’s how Washington works,” says a White House liaison.
Iannucci’s Washington is brimming with shameless self-promoters, but so far it seems they risk only embarrassment, too. When communications director Mike (Matt Walsh) calls a new staffer a dickwad in front of the chair of the American Foundation for Developmental Disabilities, he isn’t reprimanded. It’s just a great cringe moment that hangs in the air for a moment.
Last night’s episode, “Catherine,” slightly expands the fallout of Selina’s decisions, which may yet result in problems cascading outward. Sarah Sutherland shows up as Selina’s college-aged daughter Catherine, only to be consistently ignored by her mother in favor of pressing political issues. The cutaways to Catherine sitting alone in Selina’s office add some darkness to the comedy, suggesting the constant disappointment of Selina’s life long before the climactic mother-daughter confrontation.
“Catherine” also benefits from serialization, riding out a wave from the previous episode regarding Selina’s clean jobs taskforce. The episodes aren’t that intertwined, but letting plots thread through the entire season keeps Selina under relentless assault, building a cumulative tension. Everything works out in the end, but only cosmetically. One argument can’t patch up things between Selina and her daughter.
Meanwhile, devious new staffer Dan (Reid Scott) singlehandedly resolves the clean-jobs crisis with self-defeating methods. His solution appeases two opposed interests, the senator who doesn’t want Big Oil to have any position on the task force and the oil lobbyist who accepts a direct line to the Vice President’s office on clean jobs issues instead of said position.
It’s early, but the task force already has a fatal design flaw with the potential to neuter the agency. The shiny new toy intended to be the vice president’s legacy now seems destined for gridlock that will keep it ineffective. It’s the quintessential Iannucci mountain of nothing: a token policy establishing a token agency.
“Veep” does’t follow the consequences as far as “In the Loop,” about how a meaningless offhand comment in the press leads to a military invasion, and none of its scenes hit home like James Gandolfini’s General Miller talking about the acceptable human cost of war. Another empty agency and a delay in policy announcement and a Senator agreeing to a bill he doesn’t fully support don’t exactly paint a picture of a dangerous government. But they do suggest that citizens are stuck with a government that is either accidental or disingenuous, the same cynical worldview behind “The Thick of It” and “In the Loop.” If only “Veep” had the same bite.