Seasons 1 thru 7
Created by Armando Iannucci
If you follow this blog, you know one of my interests is examining how media is used to prop up the legitimacy of institutions in America. Since the early days of film, people have been rewriting history or portraying offices like the President with this sense of eternal nobility. This type of writing, present in the works of filmmakers like Aaron Sorkin, turns my stomach. It ultimately serves as propaganda to admonish activism that pushes for material change and instead pivot the American mindset into being satisfied with shallow sentiment and hollow platitudes. For example, the West Wing constantly presents those who populate the White House as flawed but virtuous, centrists who are always right and debate themselves into wins against conservatives and leftists. When The West Wing was originally airing, I remember someone I knew who liked the show admitting that it was ultimately “porn for liberals.” It provided a comforting fantasy with little to no connection to what happens in reality. Veep is the antithesis of this.
Veep begins with Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) dissatisfied with being marginalized to side issues the unseen President Hughes has no interest in. Her staff are a mix of the devoted (Gary played by Tony Hale & Amy played by Anna Chlumsky), the bumbling (Mike played by Matt Walsh), and the craven (Dan played by Reid Scott). They all collectively work to improve her image in the public eye by rapidly pivoting from one issue to the next. The only consistent connection to the White House is staffer Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), who is oblivious that literally, everyone hates him. Each season, the series got better, adding chief of staff Ben (Kevin Dunn) and statistician Kent (Gary Cole), who did their best to polish the highly tarnished Meyer into someone the public would vote into the White House.
When Veep premiered in 2012, it was right before the start of the second Obama term. It was the creation of British television showrunner Armando Iannucci who had garnered great acclaim for The Thick of It, a British comedy about the inner workings of that nation’s government. In 2009, that series inspired a feature film, In the Loop, which remade the show and expanded its scope to the American War on Terror. Throughout all of this work, Iannucci and his writers proved to have a sharp ear for the voices of these manic people caught up in the constantly career-ending drama, obsessed with optics in the media, and a pathetic desire to be liked by a faceless mass they despised. Veep is essentially these same themes imported into the highest offices of the federal government.
By the time Veep ended in mid-2019, America was in the final years of the Trump administration, which had proved that political satire couldn’t keep up with the absurdity of reality. Before going further, it’s essential to understand that I write this from a perspective that shrugs off the ridiculous binary of Conservative/Liberal in American politics. Instead, I believe there’s a greater spectrum of ideology; it’s just that the two-party system is designed to promote baby-brained myopic thinking. I’m not 100% sure of what label I’d apply to myself, but in the last few years, I have moved very strongly towards the Socialist/Communist end of the spectrum, a way of thinking that pretty much has zero representation in American politics despite Fox News’ most robust efforts to label the right-wing Democratic Party as communists. As I once was one, I can understand why people cling to the binary. Most Democratic voters are that way because they can clearly see the Republicans are evil, but they still feel like they have to vote for someone. The twist is the Democrats are also bad, just a different flavor.
One of the most brilliant things Iannucci did with Veep was never stating characters’ political affiliation. As a viewer, you can make assumptions, but there’s never a concrete answer. Free from the binary, we begin to understand how malleable the characters’ beliefs are in that they have none. I recently binge-watched all seven seasons again in the span of a month, and it was one of the best ways to watch the series. The ongoing subplots and character arcs were much clear. Episodes are often packed with stories and fast-paced, so watching weekly didn’t lend itself to keeping up with all the details.
A complaint often leveled against Veep is that it became cruder and more cartoonish as the series progressed, and Iannucci eventually left the day-to-day operations. I don’t think that was a sign of decline in quality but an effort to reflect the growing absurdity of American politics. With the 2016 election, it was clear that the prestige of American political institutions was revealed as a sick joke. They always had been, but now it was harder to deny it. Donald Trump was an unqualified buffoon while Hillary Clinton was achingly desperate to become President, something she saw as her right at this point. The Republican Party was stunned and, over four years, decided to lean into a more dangerous embrace of right-wing fascism while the Democratic Party refused to do any self-evaluation and double-down on promoting the same dead-end establishment politics. Electoralism is no longer a viable avenue to create real social change in America at this point. Likely, it never was anyway.
Selina Meyer is a perfect conduit for this cynicism. Early in the series, she has some principled beliefs that become harder and harder to adhere to if she hopes to seal political victories. However, events lead to her taking office when President Hughes steps down right before the next election. This results in a season centered on these eighteen months in office and her desperate bid to secure a full term outright. Meyer believes this ascendancy is owed to her. Dreyfus delivers a stunning performance of a woman who has wedged herself into a particular space where the only way out is to become President and finally be loved by the people.
Politics in Veep is not based on actual issues or beliefs but in the Ego. All interactions between political figures are seething with jealousy and are entirely transactional. The result is that no one ever comes to have a meaningful relationship with these people they have spent years or even decades with. There’s a brief glimmer in the early seasons that Meyer’s staff are human and want more than this. However, by the end, characters like Dan are fully hooked on the drug of power, while Amy has devoted so much of her life to Meyer that she has nothing else to believe in. She ends up as the campaign manager for a Meyer rival, and we watch any positive traits of Amy crumble away until she’s a hilarious parody of Kelly Anne Conway. Mike seems like the most grounded though comically dumb person in the group. However, his final scene shows him becoming a distinguished national news anchor, a role that, on reflection of the whole series, is about as ridiculous as you could imagine.
The things that might seem absurd at first don’t seem so implausible when you examine the state of modern American political discourse. Look at the relationship between Biden and Kamala Harris as it’s played out in the first two years of their term. Harris has continually been saddled with unwinnable issues that seem to promise massive acclaim if she can find a solution. Early on, Harris was handed the border crisis and ended up generating viral clips looking at potential refugees displaced because of American policy and telling them not to come, a complete reversal of the empty “Give us your huddled masses” sentiment associated with the U.S. Since then, there has been scene after scene of Harris stumbling through word casserole as she’s asked questions by reporters about everything from COVID-19 to the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Juxtaposed against clips of her impressive interrogations of Trump’s nominees, you are left wondering what the hell happened?
Meyer follows a very similar trajectory, and near the end of the final season, we get a flashback episode that shows moments from her past as she went into politics and wanted to make a difference. Unfortunately, the higher up the ladder she ascended, the worse she became, the greater the chance she would betray a trusted ally, or they would betray her. Meyer becomes consumed by her narcissism, to the point that she can broker a deal to “free” Tibet during her 18-month tenure but loses her mind when it’s her successor that gets the credit. It’s not that she did something amazing and can rest happy that it was done; Meyer needs the public to give her credit. She needs her name in the history books next to this accomplishment. There’s also an ongoing scandal surrounding misuse of a federal database regarding political mailers that shows Meyer truly is shallow.
The show became something extraordinary when it found that moment where Meyer stopped caring about making anything better and settled into her fixation on her legacy. But, we must wonder if she could be anything else working within a completely broken system. After being handed the White House, Tom James (Hugh Laurie) is introduced in her first election bid. James seems very genuine, a man of the people who shows appreciation for others’ work. Yet, we eventually have the man revealed as another self-centered player in the game who doesn’t hesitate to screw over Meyer.
The final episode of the series can be seen as Meyer’s complete apotheosis into a being of pure Ego. She’s forced to participate in a contested convention where the top candidates are brokering support from the also-rans. Part of her plotting involves harming Tom James without really needing to to further her political goals. The look in his eyes when he realizes how much further gone she is than the other craven politicians around her speaks volumes. Meyer has done what everyone around her does; she just went further than anyone else. The fallout from illegal Chinese funds donated to her campaign is ultimately hung on the oblivious & devoted assistant Gary. The final scene between the two is a blade through Gary’s heart, his rotten payoff for two decades of devotion to this political figure. Meyer does seem to show some sign of guilt but can swallow it down and keep trucking forward.
You might think an argument could be made that politics are ultimately just like this, but these people are reasonable; you just have to see them in the right setting. It becomes clear that Meyer knows nothing about her closest confidantes’ personal lives while they are privy to every aspect of hers. She constantly ends up with her ex-husband Andrew (David Pasquesi), an obvious con-man using her power to leverage deals with the worst people.
The biggest victim of Meyer’s Ego is her poor daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland). Meyer makes constant asides to her staff about Catherine’s weight as a child, her choice of major at university, and her love life. At one point, Catherine is dating an Iranian-American student at her school, and Meyer squashes the relationship because it doesn’t play well in the media. Eventually, Catherine comes out as gay and marries one of her mother’s former secret service agents. Meyer proceeds to use their child, done with the help of a Black staff member Richard (played brilliantly by Sam Richardson). The former veep sees having a Black grandchild as politically advantageous as she gears up for another presidential bid.
There are so many more characters and plots I’ve intentionally not brought up here in the hopes that you choose to sit down and watch this brilliant series. Iannucci and company have pushed back against the laughable & vapid reverence for institutions in Aaron Sorkin’s work. Instead, they posit that any and all people in American politics are either naive buffoons or self-obsessed nightmares. I don’t see how someone can stand back and look at the ineffectual nature of America’s government to provide even the smallest of benefits to its people and think Innaucci could be wrong. When faced with such a bleak outlook, the best we can do is find something in the horror to laugh at.