What a state: how Veep went from clever to crude

After Armando Iannucci’s exit, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-starring comedy took a turn for the worse

In 2012, with Obama a shoo-in for a second term and the era of concentration camps on American soil safely behind us, the time was ripe for a sitcom about a vain, venal politician with an office in the West Wing. As Veep’s central character, Julia Louis-Dreyfus imbued vice-president Selina Meyer with a convincing mix of charm and barely concealed rage, and the show’s sharp dialogue and keen observations of Washington DC hypocrisy made it a must-watch.

It wrung much of its humour from the impotence of the VP position, as in the pilot episode, where Selina’s speech about clean energy is censored by the president so it that won’t alienate any of his benefactors, leaving her with just “Hello … ” and prepositions.

It also highlighted the challenges of being a woman in public life, with Selina aware that referencing her gender would lose her political points (as she told her staff: “I can’t identify myself as a woman, people can’t know that”). While Louis-Dreyfus’s performance was the star turn, the entire ensemble was stellar, including Tony Hale as Selina’s “body man” Gary, keeper of secrets and hand wipes; and head of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky), a coiled spring in human form.

The show’s incisive writing was no surprise, considering it was created by Armando Iannucci, who had previously skewered Westminster politics in BBC comedy The Thick of It. It was when he left at the end of season four that Veep began its descent. It increasingly favoured innuendos and insults over clever commentary and doubled down on obnoxious characters who were best employed in moderation, such as Patton Oswalt’s political campaigner/sexual harasser Teddy Sykes and staffer Jonah Ryan (Tim Simons).

Plus, the show lost sight of what made its lead character tick. The final season saw Selina – who briefly inherited the presidency in season three before losing it in a general election – fight and manipulate her way back to the Oval Office, and it was miserable to watch. Where previous storylines were rooted in the fact that she often had to compromise her ideals in order to keep her position (such as when she defended the importance of abortion access behind the scenes but spewed mealy-mouthed platitudes on breakfast television), now we saw her sabotage a Tibetan peace treaty, allow China to meddle in American democracy, and set up Gary as the patsy for her charitable foundation’s financial misdemeanours.

It made sense that almost 30 years in politics might have made her cynical but it was hard to believe that even a politician whose ambitions were continually thwarted could be so awful. The flash-forward finale made things worse: not only did it kill off Selina but also America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks, a call back to a throwaway season one remark that no one needed to see played out.

It cannot be easy to satirise politics in the age of Donald Trump, and perhaps his presidency calls for an approach entirely stripped of subtlety. But it was sad to see one of America’s best comedies become almost as crude as he is.

Contributor

Diane Shipley

The GuardianTramp

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