Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Veep's refreshing breath of cynicism

Posted By on Tue, May 1, 2012 at 3:13 PM

click to enlarge veep_premiere_matt_walsh.jpg

Mention political TV shows and immediately, the listener will think ofThe West Wing. (They certainly won’t think of That’s My Bush.)

With The West Wing, creator Aaron Sorkin gave us an in-depth backstage pass into the White House. Only, not the White House as it existed (certainly not the Bush White House). It was a White House of brilliant minds and machine-gun dialogue and earnest ideology and spouting arcane statistics — that everyone seemed to have memorized — while walking and talking. It was a White House where the president loved lecturing on Latin and in Latin, where whenever the president abandoned what was political for what was right, his poll numbers actually went up.

Most of the characters on The West Wing would probably cringe at the idea that they fit the modern definition of “patriotism” — with flag lapel pins and all — but West Wing was a truly patriotic show, an alternate universe where America finally lived up to Aaron Sorkin’s ideals.  

Veep, the new half-hour comedy about a vice president and her staff,is the precise opposite.

Veep comes from the creator of the absolutely brilliant, wickedly cynical show, The Thick of It, about the internal workings of British politics.

Here, the sad sack speech writer for the vice president doesn’t wrestle with the poetry of a particularly compelling line; he wrestles with armpit stains.The aides don’t quote Gilbert and Sullivan at length; they tussle over what flavor of frozen yogurt the vice president should get (swirl represents “racial harmony.”) The monologues aren’t about the importance of every American child receiving a college education; they’re profanity-laden screeds about staff screw-ups.

If The West Wing is alternate history, this is alternate farce — inevitably ending in an impromptu speech as uncomfortable as anything on The Office or a stream of vomiting as gross as anything on Party Down.

And yet, in a way, Veep comes as a relief compared to the earnest West Wing. It’s the difference between having superstar parents that expect you to live up to your examples and screw-up parents who you hope to be better than.

In the actual political environment — where “how each candidate treated dogs decades ago” dominates the news cycle — exceeding Veep could still be a challenge. But at least it’s possible.

Neither perfectly captures the political reality, of course. As MacLean’s critic Jaime Weinman points out, Veep misses the fact that ideology plays an increasingly massive role in American politics. And The West Wing had a bad habit of making idiot strawmen out of the president’s opponents, and chose “the president secretly has MS” as its big scandal.

But if The West Wing was the superego of political television, always pushing the political process to be better, Veep is its messy, petty id — all about optics and minor scandal and stupid staff hiccups and profanity.

Want to teach an outsider about the way the Washington D.C. works? Show them both. 


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