Film & Television · Politics

Veep, Season 2: ‘Good-Looking’ Women in Politics, Cont’d

It wouldn’t surprise most people reading this that I’m a sucker for movies and TV shows set in Washington, D.C. Like many of my cohorts, I spent the early 2000s relying on The West Wing for comfort, and agree with many that Advise and Consent is the apotheosis of political movies (even if I wanted to shower afterward). Last year I was dazzled by HBO’s The Newsroom, even when it felt like Aaron Sorkin’s own self-created fan fiction.

When a woman is the main character, it makes the show all that much harder to resist: part of me is still in mourning for Geena Davis’s short-lived 2005 Commander in Chief.  Most recently I’ve j0ined our Eleanore Wells in SCANDAL addiction, and last summer I was even a loyal viewer of USA’s failed Political Animals, because who can resist Sigourney Weaver as president? (Apparently, given the ratings, most of you.)

That last show featured a woman who had actually been elected president, which counted as progress. (Geena Davis’s Mackenzie Phillips had been a vice president assuming the post on her husband’s death.) Even Weaver’s character was also a former first lady, with no official resemblance to our secretary of state. Just as it happens in some ways with gay characters, the more viewers get used to women in power, the more likely it is that their existence will become commonplace to the viewer, and maybe the voter.

Which is why, despite some misgivings, I’m actually looking forward to the return of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO’s Veep.

It’s a daring show even for HBO, I realize, since it’s directed by Armando Iannucci, the British director famous for In the Loop (a brutal spoof of how “we” got into Iraq) and BBC’s The Thick of It, on which Veep is based. What that means is that the comedy isn’t just black, it’s ultraviolet, with Washington’s death and sex and lies played completely for laughs and a fair amount of foul language and scatological humor. And at first it sometimes felt as if it were a joke in search of a story; I was inclined to think of it, as David Macaray wrote this year in The Huffington Post, as “one interminably long and repetitive two-part joke: (1) we have a Vice-President who’s bored, egotistical and mildly stupid, and (2) she’s surrounded by a staff of moronic sycophants. Which is to say that inanity is the show’s currency.”

Veep is positing, of course, that inanity is simply the currency of Washington—thus the Kabuki-substituting-for-political-discourse that is so ably parodied by the likes of Jon Stewart. Consistent with the theme, the show has created an ideology-free vice president composed almost purely of ambition.  Alyssa Rosenberg tapped Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer as  “the Somewhat-Wise Woman” (as opposed to other comedies’ Crude Broad or Wide-Eyed Innocent). The series’ framework is anarchic, subversive, and unhurried; the characters, however, are in an extreme hurry. But the writers are clear that almost nothing the characters do is as important as they think it is.

Including the veep herself, which may be why she comes off as a little dim. In an interview this week, Dreyfus describes Meyer as someone determined not to be a sucker: 

“Yeah, she’s kind of an asshole . . .  She’s extremely driven, extremely vain, narcissistic—and all of that stuff gets in front of her good intentions, which are somewhere down there. Deep, deep down. She doesn’t mean to do the wrong things. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and she feels that. I’m not going to say she’s a victim—she’s not—but she’s definitely reacting to a political universe she’s been a part of for twenty-something years.” 

Part of that universe, she added later, was the understanding  of what last week’s Kamala Harris scandalette put into sharp relief: female politicians are scrutinized as much for their looks as for their words. “That they’re pulled apart in that way is highly unjust,” Dreyfus said, “and definitely something that is on my mind as I play this character.”

None of which makes Selina Meyer much of a role model for women. But to ask that would be to ask that Veep  be an entirely different sort of show.  I wouldn’t expect “balance” from Monty Python’s Margaret Thatcher cartoons, or The Onion to turn one of its generic photo shoots into investigative journalism. And as the clip above shows, Meyer gets under your skin eventually. You understand why her loyal aide—played by Anna Chlumsky, who played a similar role in the British version—has been with her all these years. (The show also passes the Bechdel Test in spades.)  And by the end of the season, there was enough narrative force that you were curious about what would come next.

At USA Today, Lorena Blasgives a few hints  about what that will be. “The new season has more scenes of Meyer in the White House in closer proximity to POTUS, and her problems grow as the series touches on foreign policy, a hostage crisis, and a government shutdown.” That sounds a little too close to credible—like something deserving of Selina Meyer’s foul mouth.

I still long for a feminist political melodrama along the lines of the shows I first mentioned: but that’s just not this director’s goal. The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg and Commander in Chief’s Mackenzie Phillips gave us something to aspire toBut Iannucci and Veep are there to question all powerful institutions, whether patriarchy or the Pentagon—and that’s what Selina does. She’s Lear’s fool or Lysistrata, speaking truth to power with every pratfall.

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