Nearly every time Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) returns to her office, she asks her assistant, “Did the president call?”
The answer, for at least the first three episodes of HBO’s new comedy “Veep,” is always no. The fact that he doesn’t call, and the odd, not especially powerful place the vice president occupies in the executive branch despite being the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency, makes the satire in “Veep” so much fun.
Created by Armando Iannucci, who’s also behind the brilliant British political comedy “The Thick of It,” “Veep,” which debuts Sunday (April 22), is nonpartisan in its targeting of the compromises and indignities of life in official Washington. Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina’s boredom and frustration to great effect, and the cast around her is equally strong. Its bite isn’t quite as fierce as that of “The Thick of It” (and its companion movie “In the Loop”), but it’s a very satisfying half-hour on its own.
Selina, a former senator from Maryland who once had presidential aspirations, is now stuck in the No. 2 job, trying to push a couple of pet initiatives — green jobs, filibuster reform — that even to a layperson don’t sound all that consequential. (Not that we’re not for environmental responsibility, but the way the show presents it, the project comes off as something the White House didn’t really want to bother with and kicked it down a notch.)
Her staff, led by the driven Amy (Anna Chlumsky, playing a different character than she did in “In the Loop” — and a very different character than in “My Girl”), isn’t especially thrilled with her job either. Amy is realizing she’s not getting what she signed on for, particularly when Selina hires another young, ambitious operative (Reid Scott of “My Boys” and “The Big C”) for her staff. Selina’s press secretary, Mike (Matt Walsh), has a fake dog he uses to get out of staying at work too late, and her assistant Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) has a very seen-it-all approach. Only Selina’s body man, Gary (“Arrested Development’s” Tony Hale), seems thoroughly invested in the job — maybe a little overinvested.
The VP and her staff have a common enemy in smarmy White House staffer Jonah (Timothy Simons), whose actual power is about the exact opposite of what he perceives it to be. He never misses a chance to flash his West Wing ID badge, and although he’s scarcely more than a toady, that badge means the VP’s staff has to listen to him, painful though it may be.
“Veep” lacks a singular breakout character along the lines of “The Thick of It’s” gloriously profane Malcolm Tucker, but it spreads the comedic wealth across the entire cast. Louis-Dreyfus does a wonderful job of showing Selina’s ever-mounting frustrations, ping-ponging between the official happy face she has to put on to dark cynicism with the turn of her head.
This is not a show that will necessarily make you feel good about our system of government: For the most part, the characters have had their idealism beaten out of them. “Veep” is a show, though, that finds great comedy in the space between that idealism and the reality they face every day.
“Veep” airs at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO.