Is HBO’s “Veep” the most underrated (or even the best) comedy on TV right now?
Veep just got renewed for Season 4 (Season 3 is airing right now) and there’s lots of scuttlebutt these days about Julia Louis-Dreyfus – having sex with a clown for GQ, posing naked on the cover of Rolling Stone – and in some ways (most ways), that makes a lot of sense. Seinfeld has untold amounts of money and Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, but that’s still a niche product. Michael Richards is off doing whatever he’s doing, and Jason Alexander is being multi-faceted in different things. None are anchoring an HBO sitcom right now, and doing so after a relatively successful run on The New Adventures of Old Christine. She really is the first lady of sitcoms; I think this might make Jenna Elfman the court jester, but I’m not entirely sure.
I’m partial to It’s Always Sunny as the best comedy show on television when it’s on — by on I mean really hitting its stride – but Veep, which I just picked up watching a few weeks ago, could be the best comedy-driven show out there. One of the things that makes it so amazing — you see this a lot on HBO shows, actually — is that all of the main people have a vague contextual background around Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but none are by any means a star. They all just nail their roles. Anna Chlumsky was, of course, in My Girl. Tony Hale was in Arrested Development, but might be known to the biggest audience from The Heat. Reid Scott was on My Boys, and Timothy Simons was credited as “Tall Guy” on Best Friends Forever (the Lennon Parham sitcom that only lasted six episodes). He’s now hysterical as Jonah, the Oval Office lackey turned digital journalist.
Here’s what’s more: DC insiders are calling it “the most realistic show” about politics out there. Check this out:
Still, Beltway insiders quickly identify the characters on the Hill. “I’ve been told by Obama’s press office that they’ve just come out of a meeting and there were two Jonahs and three Dans there,” Iannucci said. Timothy Simons who plays West Wing wanna-be Jonah said that real-life politicians who think Veep satirizes every politician but themselves are exactly the right target for the show. “We’re definitely making fun of them,” Simons said.
Iannucci in the above pull-quote refers to Armando Iannucci, the creator of the show (writer/director of several episodes). There’s a solid New Yorker profile on him you should check out.
Some historians believe there’s nothing realistic about the show, while other observers concede a middle ground. There’s an argument about Veep and The West Wing, perhaps best articulated here: essentially, West Wing left out all the shtick and morons of Washington to focus more on the drama, relationships and idealism. On the flip side, Veep pushes aside all the “rah rah” idealism for the comedy. That said, West Wing was construed more as a drama — especially in the seasons where it fell off a cliff — so that comparison is tough. I actually watched a lot of Alpha House on Amazon Prime this fall/winter and I thought that show was fairly realistic (again, I don’t work on Capitol Hill or anything), but Veep seems to take the inherent ridiculousness of Washington and handlers and pine it for comedy better than anything else (again, most DC shows aren’t meant to be comedies, so it’s a bit of a different space). I’m not even sure reality needs to be pre-eminent; there has to be some degree of believability, which I think Veep has — and that doesn’t just come from Louis-Dreyfus, it comes from everyone playing their role (lackey, incompetent press guy, baiter of others, woman with no time for personal life, sycophant assistant) to a tee.
Ratings are down, yes:
HBO just renewed "Veep," which is having an amazing season, though ratings are down. "Silicon Valley" also renewed.—
Zach Seward (@zseward) April 21, 2014
… but the other part of that tweet is right. It’s an amazing season so far. If you’ve seen it — i.e. the last episode — and witnessed Jonah in Anacostia running towards a group of black males and saying “Just hanging out on the COH-NER,” to be greeted with a resounding “WHAT?” and then run away saying “Nothing, nothing,” you probably laughed out loud.
And then stop and think for a second about how Chlumsky became this:
But those creative insults aren’t just about cruelty. They’re about language. No comedy on television revels in the English language like Veep. The setting is a playground for absurd political branding (“We see ourselves as very much post-tax,” says a corporate honcho) and campaign nonsense (“I can’t in all conscience politicize this as an issue”). It’s the absolute spin zone. A character on Veep can either tear apart what other people are saying or say something that others will tear apart, and whole scenes are constructed so that a character will make a speech with no content and deliver it badly besides. When Maddox asks his campaign manager what he expects him to say about an issue, he mockingly suggests, “‘Blah blah blah blah, abortion. Blah blah blah blah.’” “That sounds good to me,” says his manager. In the abortion episode, Veep’s political noise even bares some teeth. “I can’t identify myself as a woman. People can’t know that! Men hate that.”
If you haven’t watched it, you should. If you have and think it might be holding the championship belt of current TV comedies, leave it in the comments.