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Television Review

She’s no second banana in ‘Veep’

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / April 20, 2012
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Fictional television politicians tend to fall into one of two categories: noble or nefarious. The former category includes the likes of the folksy President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) of “The West Wing,” and a recent example of the latter, Kelsey Grammer’s Mayor Tom Kane, will be chewing his way through the Chicago skyline in a second season of the often-riveting Starz drama “Boss” in August. What you rarely see, and what makes HBO’s new series “Veep,” premiering Sunday at 10 p.m., such a treat, are politicians as regular people. (Or “normals” as “Veep” refers to them.)

Sure the dramatic highs of election nights, the sober moments of wartime decision-making, the hot mess of sex scandals, and the shady backroom dealings make for great drama. But it turns out that simply punching in at the office every day and putting up with all of the quotidian interpersonal shenanigans that entails makes for great comedy. Ruling this particular office space is veteran comic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer, who is firing on all of her Emmy-winning cylinders.

Meyer is neither entirely noble, nor intentionally nefarious, instead, she inhabits what is likely a very real, rock-and-a-hard-place spot for ambitious politicians: wanting to do the right thing while simultaneously trying to cover your own ass. When she hears good news about one of her initiatives, Meyer crows, “That is so great for me!” When her chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) reminds her that it’s also good, for, you know, the country, Meyer quickly replies, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant.”

The series, created and given a gleefully nasty-raunchy-profane edge by Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”), doesn’t disclose Meyer’s party affiliation and it doesn’t matter, since the machinations she goes through could take place on either side of the aisle. The focus is on Meyer’s considerable vanity, her plentiful foibles, and the staggering ineptitude of her staff — not to mention their maneuvering in and out of the veep’s office.

They may be a trainwreck as characters, but the actors portraying that staff are a cracker jack crew. Chlumsky is a long way from “My Girl,” throwing off alternating waves of bravado and panic as the sharp-tongued Amy. Matt Walsh is a sweaty wreck of a communications director whose motto is “I don’t want to know!” for the purposes of plausible deniability. Reid Scott positively oozes smarm as oily aide Dan, who is brought on for his skills in “creative semantics,” or as it’s more commonly known, lying. And Tony Hale — Buster from “Arrested Development” — is side-splitting as the vice president’s eager-to-please “body man,” who always makes sure to have enough lip balm and hand sanitizer at the ready for his boss.

There are so many stingers and zingers lobbed in the first three episodes available for review — the first season will feature eight installments — it’s possible to laugh right through some of them. One favorite: When Meyer is told to mingle at a poorly attended meeting she asks, “How do you suggest I mingle with this few people? Did Simon mingle with Garfunkel?”

Iannucci and his cast are as deft with a wonky policy joke as they are with good old-fashioned bathroom humor and Louis-Dreyfus shines, throwing herself, as she so often did on “Seinfeld” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” physically into the role. She allows her frustrations and joys to leak out in full body gesticulations that can be as funny as the verbal barbs.

She may be playing the world’s most famous understudy but Louis-Dreyfus is definitely the commander-in-chief of “Veep.”

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.

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Television Review

VEEP

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, and Matt Walsh

On: HBO

Time: Sunday, 10-10:30 p.m.