The vice presidency has always been ripe for satire as an office merely close to greatness, with little real responsibility. Yet HBO’s “Veep” chooses to mine that scenario for laughs at a slightly misguided time — after arguably the most influential VP ever, Dick Cheney — and does so in disappointingly pallid fashion, conspicuously sidestepping questions of policy or politics. What remains is essentially a limp version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” against a D.C. backdrop, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus gamely playing to the absurdity of the situations, but yielding only modest returns. Perhaps appropriately, a show about an always-second office becomes second-tier TV.
Unlike, say, “Commander in Chief,” “Veep” doesn’t really get caught up in gender issues, other than some irritating wardrobe/style comparisons between Louis-Dreyfus’ Vice President Selina Meyer and the first lady — like the President, unseen through three episodes, a bit like Charlie Brown’s parents.
Instead, “Veep” focuses on backstage matters involving the world’s ultimate understudy, the political equivalent of “All About Eve.” Still, Selina’s bickering staff isn’t particularly interesting, with the lone exception of Gary (Tony Hale), her ever-present right hand, who feeds her key information at every meet-and-greet ceremony, like a whispering small-talk machine.
Beyond that, the series proves strangely defanged — cynical, but not especially smart. For starters, there’s nary a clue about the VP’s political bent, other than her preoccupation with a clean-jobs act, her sole chance to place some kind of imprint on the administration.
One can see downplaying the politics, but completely expunging them — especially in this day and age, amid such polarized times — feels too coy and precious, for no particular reason. What’s the point in hanging out with a politician and not sensing where they stand?
As a consequence, the result isn’t so much a savvy skewering of D.C. foibles as “The Office” with F-bombs — which makes the show less distinctive and pay-TV worthy than it ought to be.
That’s especially surprising given New York magazine columnist Frank Rich’s involvement as one of the producers, though the show’s driving force is Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”), who wrote and directed the pilot. The program also has the misfortune to come close on the heels of “Game Change,” an HBO movie that demonstrated just how entertaining politics can be.
Louis-Dreyfus is certainly a gifted clown, but “Veep” limits her to one form of farce repeated over and over — the awkward exchange or little indignity, including those inflicted by the president’s flunky Jonah (Timothy C. Simons), who frequently pops into the VP’s offices, invariably with bad news.
“Veep” sparks to life only occasionally, the most inspired bit coming in the second episode, when the Vice President briefly thinks she might get promoted — a well, presumably, the series won’t be able to dip into very often.
Otherwise, “Veep” appears less concerned with being relevant than merely wacky. The series thus becomes the weak link in a Sunday lineup punctuated by two buzzworthy if very different properties — the sweeping “Game of Thrones” and half-hour “Girls.”
HBO’s selection of “Veep” as their running mate does little to enhance an otherwise winning ticket.