Veep – box set review

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is fantastic as a politically impotent vice-president in Armando Iannucci's enjoyably silly sitcom

If power corrupts, then Selina Meyer is probably the cleanest politician in America. You might think that the vice-president (Veep for short) would be followed down the corridors of power by teams of suited flunkies doing the walk and talk as if their lives depended on it. But, at least if you take Armando Iannucci's version of events at face value, then being second-in-command is a position of complete futility and powerlessness, its only solace coming from whatever scraps are dropped from the White House table.

Though ostensibly a US version of The Thick of It, Veep is much more than a transatlantic echo of Malcolm Tucker and his reign of terror on British politics – even if the insults do come thick and fast, with levels of venom rising as plots are hatched (usually with the sole purpose of self-advancement). In one memorable episode, Meyer discovers the nicknames political bloggers are calling her online. They range from the teasing "Mrs Doubt-Meyer" to the merciless "Tawdry Hepburn". However, the sheer brutality that ran through The Thick of It is missing – and that's a good thing, allowing a light-hearted, fresher look at the machinations of politics across the pond. It also means Iannucci can indulge the sillier, rather than the nastier, side of his humour.

Throughout its eight-episode first season, the HBO show eases viewers into the world of Meyer, played with a perfect combination of ineptness and amorality by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (AKA Elaine from Seinfeld). Her assistants, a motley crew of four, are permanently on hand to grease the wheels of every meet and greet, whispering the names of an important person's grandchild, or rewriting a speech when, say, Meyer accidentally calls someone a retard. Amy, played by Anna Chlumsky, is Meyer's chief of staff, trouble-shooter and everything-doer; while Gary, played by Tony Hale of Arrested Development, is Meyer's sycophantic personal aide. Between them, they help the Veep navigate the PR disasters and the scheming political climbers who threaten to make her look stupid as well as ineffectual.

But what's most striking about Veep is how little influence the second-in-command has. "I'd have more power in my hands," she says, "if I took one of those Segway tours of Washington." Her Clean Jobs Commission is doomed to failure as soon as it emerges, given the all-powerful oil industry, and she is regularly left out of important meetings with the president. The second episode of Veep nails its colours to the mast when, after the president is taken ill in Africa, Meyer is put in charge. Cancelling a plan to visit a local frozen-yoghurt parlour that has offered to name a flavour after her, Meyer embraces her newfound authority. It is hinted throughout that she failed in her own presidential bid – so it is a cruel blow when, what seems like minutes later, she finds out that the president merely had indigestion and Meyer can return to accepting her frozen-yoghurt gift. The flavour, naturally, is vanilla.

What would Joe Biden, the real-life Veep, make of it? Would he mind being portrayed as such an ineffectual politician? Well, he actually had Louis-Dreyfus round for lunch earlier this year. She sat in his chair.

• This article was amended on 9 August 2013 to correct the names of two characters. Gary was originally referred to as Eric, and Amy as Anna.

Contributor

David Renshaw

The GuardianTramp

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