In Armando Iannucci’s new HBO series Veep, we join Selena Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, early on in her vice presidency. She has the potential to be powerful, but after assuming office alongside her running mate (a man the show never identifies), the former senator finds herself suddenly in the backseat.
“There’s something interesting about being so near but so far,” Iannucci, the show’s creator, said of the vice presidency. “Having been influential yourself, to think you’re going one step up, but there’s always that doubt that you might have taken a step down.”
Iannucci — best known in the U.S. for his earlier political satire, In the Loop — applies the same sharp writing to the characters in Veep: glasses are “like a wheelchair for the eyes”; don’t “fuck” with the oil industry, because “they fuck in a very uncomfortable position”; and appearing in a mostly empty room of senators, Selena asks an aide, “How do you suggest I mingle? Did Simon mingle with Garfunkel?”
While writing Veep, Iannucci told TPM he was fascinated by the debt limit debate in Washington, where Vice President Joe Biden headed a round of negotiations on Capitol Hill. “You’re kind of a spokesperson for the president,” Iannucci said. “A lightning rod. Vice presidents relish being as close to the president as possible, but they’re slightly tarnished at the same time.”
That said, Veep steers clear of party politics.
“I didn’t want this to be about a type of political view, the state of Democrats and Republicans,” Iannucci said. Over the course of the season, characters will emerge that more or less represent the two parties. But it’s not explicitly defined.
Iannucci wrote the VP part for a woman in order to avoid the perception that the show was commentary on Biden or former Vice President Dick Cheney. And it’s definitely not a critique of Sarah Palin or even Hillary Clinton. Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes the character her own person, he said. Louis-Dreyfus, who grew up in Washington, brings “great instinctive comic intelligence,” Iannucci said. “You want someone who knows what it’s like to be recognized when she comes in a room, and having to behave it’s normal.”
The show’s sharp writing is more often than not peppered with profanity. It’s part of Iannucci’s signature writing style. People in high-level positions in Washington do swear, he said, though to varying degrees. Pentagon employees, for instance, swear more than those of the State Department. “When the doors are closed at the end of the day, they just need to get it all off their chest and unload.” But, he added, the swearing has to be interesting enough to justify its use. That’s where lines like “fuckity doo dah, fuckity ay” come in.
Frank Rich — currently a writer at large for New York magazine — is an executive producer of the show. Rich, who was a longtime theater critic and later op-ed columnist for the New York Times, said Veep “scratches that itch” to be involved in a show. Rich told TPM he never had any interest in writing for television. But Veep provides a “clever way to look at someone who technically has no power.”
Ultimately, Iannucci said he hopes the show is an “eye-opener into how DC actually works. I hope (viewers) will arrive at some kind of sympathy or understanding from the politicians.”
Creating an entire show about the vice presidency begs the question: who is Iannucci’s favorite vice president?
Eagerly awaiting Robert Caro’s fourth volume, Iannucci didn’t hesitate in choosing Lyndon B. Johnson. “That’s, for me, the most fascinating of the VP’s: king of the Hill, in control of the Senate as Senate Majority Leader, then, in those first months as vice president, finding himself in a big room with nothing to do.”
Veep premieres Sunday, April 22, at 10pm EST.
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com