Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Review: VEEP, 1.1 – "Fundraiser"


Veep marks award-winning British writer Armando Iannucci's first commission for the American marketplace, after the baby-step of transatlantic movie In The Loop, which quasi-adapted his award-winning BBC comedy The Thick Of It. It comes as no surprise that Veep's an amalgam of both those political efforts, only exclusively concerning the US government. This eight-part HBO series concerns Vice President ("veep") Selena Myers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she navigates Capitol Hill with her entourage of superfluous staff, feeling like a spare part. Along for the ride is her Chief of Staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky, a holdover from Loop), Director of Communications Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh) and his hated deputy Dan Egan (Reid Scott), whispering personal aide Gary Walsh (Arrested Development's Tony Hale), White House liaison Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), and executive-assistant Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw).

The pilot, "Fundraiser", saw Selena swinging from one professional humiliation to the next: beginning with a half-empty function after a PR disaster with a comment about biodegradable cutlery replacing all plastic; a meeting with a senator who ignores Selena, her obvious superior; and a slip of the tongue at an important press conference the President couldn't attend, resulting in Selena accidentally saying the offensive phrase "hoisted by our own retard".

I expected to have a stronger and more positive reaction to Veep, particularly as a fan of In The Loop, but this half-hour slipped by innocuously and didn't leave me craving more. The cinéma-vérité style it employs (nay the post-Office "mockumentary" format as whole) is starting to really irritate me, and there was a feeling that Veep's arrived five years too late. The Thick Of It benefited from running parallel to the divisive Tony Blair/George W. years, and had its own tyrannical monster in profane Malcolm Tucker, whom you couldn't take your eyes (or ears) off... whereas Veep's stuck in Obama's bland era of recession woe. I'm sure many people will enjoy Veep regardless, as it's well-produced and spiritedly performed by a great cast, but from my perspective it feels oddly prosaic. There's nothing new being said by Iannucci after years writing The Thick Of It; it's just the same meal for a different diner. But at least the average HBO viewer prefers sirloin steak over a greasy Big Mac.

My misgivings probably wouldn't matter if there were sterling performances to relish, but competency is all the pilot demonstrates. I like Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus a great deal, but her character didn't grab my attention, and the people she's surrounded by feel like yawning archetypes. There's time for these characters to develop complexities, because few pilot arrive with everything fully-formed (even ones with the benefit of two "trial run" UK projects), so we'll see if Veep's characters settle into some interesting grooves after a few more episodes.

Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell (The Thick Of It, Peep Show) are two of the UK's best comedy writers, so their script is still peppered with witty one-liners and amusing quips. I'm just not sure the Capitol Hill milieu is necessarily as funny as its Westminster counterpart. You tend to perceive the movers-and-shakers of Washington D.C as capable and powerful people, even if their politics can be crazier and scarier than British policies. Veep should perhaps aim to skewer the unnerving side of American politics, because I didn't find any of the characters inherently funny as personalities. Sure, they said funny things, but that's a different thing altogether. And if we're getting picky about the use of language here, when Americans swear it rarely has the same effect as British swearing--which is half-caustic, half-hilarious, and more volubly creative. American swearing just is what it is: profane. Iannucci was therefore wise to avoid having an "American version" of potty-mouthed Tucker on Veep, but he perhaps should have included a different monster to grab this show by the scruff of the neck. It really needs someone to inject vinegar into its veins.

Overall, Veep's pilot disappointed me but I'm willing to stick around to see if problems can be overcome once the actors grow more confident and Iannucci finds his voice (or American accent). It doesn't help that The Thick Of It's illustrious shadow looms over this show for British eyes, which we can't help but compare it to, but I hope Veep finds some unique targets for its satire and utilises the US setting for maximum effect.

written by Armando Iannucci & Simon Blackwell (story by Armando Iannucci) / directed by Armando Iannucci / 22 April 2012 / HBO
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