Shakespearean soliloquy more than catchphrase is the stock-in-trade of Francis Underwood, the oily antihero of “House of Cards,” but you can bet if he had one it would exude infinitely more agency than “Did the President call?” That’s the line oft-uttered by Selina Meyer, the inept eponym of “Veep” (returning for a third season on HBO April 6th) and the polar opposite in almost every way to Underwood’s ingenious schemer. But despite the drastic differences in the shows’ relative takes on the office and abilities of Vice President of the United States, “Veep” and “House of Cards” nevertheless each paint a picture of American politics that’s indebted to — even exploitative of — public perception.
Each, after all, indulges a fundamental fantasy of the way we perceive our politicians: as self-serving slimeballs or out-of-their-depth idiots. There’s a cathartic caricature at work in both shows, no matter the direction it leans. Where Underwood’s antics — audaciously evil on Beau Willimon’s page and all the more so via Kevin Spacey’s demonic delivery — play to our image of evil running amok on the Capitol, the unerring awkwardness of Meyer’s serial stupidity — with Armando Iannucci’s wince-worthy words and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ pitiful performance — shows that, even in Washington, no one knows what the heck they’re doing.
As much as Twitter gags and his own gaffes might make for an amusing mental image of Joe Biden filling either pair of shoes, these TV VPs don’t so much reflect the reality of the job as they sharply skewer it, playing up the avarice and ambition that comes with the turf. Earning his new office only at the start of season two, Underwood’s expertly-orchestrated ascension to the executive branch may merely seem the next stop on his self-paved path to power, but sitting just over the President’s right shoulder seems an apt image for the show’s central themes.
Where he, in all his governmental gluttony, makes the most of the office’s incarnation of the also-ran, she embodies above all its impotence. Meyer’s catchphrase-cum-question, of course, is invariably answered with a flat “no” — in “Veep” the President never so much as appears onscreen, much less calls. His comical absence is emblematic of the series’ exploitation of that aspect of its namesake, being the right hand (wo)man to the commander-in-chief and yet always kept at an arm’s length.
Perhaps that’s the appeal of the office to both sets of storytellers: the VP is, in theory, the second-most powerful person in the country, yet (s)he’s also one cast in the shadows and tasked with the dirty work. It’s as high a post as can be attained while still being made to somehow seem low, a symbol of the center that’s really off spinning on the rim. It’s not for no reason that we don’t see much of the office “three doors down” to which Underwood refers repeatedly throughout the new season: the VP’s West Wing room is mostly for show; his main place of work is across the street.
It’s the ideal office, then, for both bastard and bozo, tapping the conflicting importance and impotence to forge a figure of frustrated ambition in equal but opposite extremes. Where Willimon and company make use of that distinct duality in their VPs’ insatiable appetite for more and more, Iannucci’s team instead exploit it as the epitome of political inability. It’s hard to say which show’s more cynical; both are a far cry from the West Wing of… well, “The West Wing,” acerbic and angry answers to that show’s inherent idealism.
It’s a fitting change in pop culture politics for post-recessionary America; as nice a guy as Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet was, he might seem awfully out of place on TV screens today. Much as his — and the series’ — all-American optimism offered a comforting sense of confidence in upper-level politics, especially in the wake of 9/11, it’s a façade that’s faded over time, given way to grittier perspectives on political power. It wasn’t the only show to benefit, if that’s the right word, from the events of September 2001 — just two months later, we had “24.”
That the Fox show is set to return this May in miniseries form is telling: not much has changed over the course of its eight seasons and extended hiatus, at least not in the public perception of politics’ power dynamics. Like it or not, “24” set the scene for shows like “Veep” and “House of Cards,” its long chain of deceptive and destructive Presidents and Vice Presidents invoking conspiracy-based cynicism and the 25th Amendment in equal, oft-absurd, measure. Just look at the show’s order of succession: from the admirable icon of David Palmer to the all-out evil of Charles Logan to the fatally futile idealism of Allison Taylor, “24” charted a path through faltering faith in the nation’s first citizen.
Not for nothing was Taylor the series’ most interesting commander-in-chief since Palmer — if unintentionally, her presidency made the perfect bookend, borne on the same deep-rooted sense of subservience to the office and all it stood for, eventually undone by ideals that seemed outdated a decade down the line. The landscape “24” left in its wake was one where the idealism that excels is the ruthlessly self-serving sort, the kind that foreswears allegiance in favour of every-man-for-himself. E plurubus unum, indeed.
It says a great deal, despite the wide divergences in tone and perspective on the ability of the office to get anything done, that their respective most recent seasons essentially have “Veep” and “House of Cards” ending on the same note for these TV VPs, facing the only frontier their long-form landscape seems poised to point them toward. Whether by way of his own power plays or to protect himself from others’ pratfalls, each series’ President has distanced his next-in-line enough to ensure that line’s never been so clear in their mind.
“It’s an honor to be invited to the party, sir.” How apt a barely-concealed barb to introduce Sally Langston, the “Scandal” VP whose sights are every bit as firmly and fiercely set on the Oval Office as Underwood’s and Meyer’s. The administration in which she serves is like an equal amalgamation of theirs, driven by the decadent deceit of “House of Cards” yet held back by the hopeless humanity of “Veep.” Shonda Rhimes’ show might be by far the most melodramatic of the bunch, but midnight murders aside, it may also be the most balanced, a series that sees its executive branch’s deplorable actions as a product — however warped — of some initial honest intention.
“It’s like believing in Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny: magical, as long as they believe.” That’s what’s said by Jeff Perry’s Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene on the average American’s need not to know of the scheming and — you betcha — “Scandal” that goes into getting things done. But if series like these are anything to go by, it’s the opposite that’s true: indulging this image of even the highest elected offices gives vent to political dispassion and affords us the luxury of imagining that fact could never be as bad as fiction.
But there’s one more series over which the VP’s shadow looms large — the real one in this case. “Parks and Recreation” protagonist Leslie Knope’s undying adoration of Biden culminated last season in perhaps the finest political cameo in television history. And albeit the ultimate payoff to an oddball in-joke, the scene’s also indicative of the show’s uncanny optimism where its politics are concerned. A leg up — in most cases begrudgingly — on the lowest rung of the government ladder, the comedy’s characters work at filling potholes and filing permits. Where TV’s political top dogs scheme and stumble, these amiable everymen get stuff done. If the other series play to our penchant for political caricature, “Parks and Rec” reminds us of the character we pine for.
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