In these new series, the good guys are as blisteringly tough as anyone, and idealism has much less to do with it than ambition. Olivia is perfectly willing to threaten and blackmail a woman she thinks falsely accused the president of an affair. How does she make amends when she realizes the woman wasn’t lying? She offers free damage-control advice – no small thing in a culture of deceit.
And Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfuss’ character in Veep is actually quite unlikeable – it’s the first thing you notice and have to get past. She can terrorize her staff; she ignores her college-age daughter. In a shrewd touch, she has the ultimate politician’s personality, deep insecurity coupled with a blazing ego – which is funny but not a very good excuse.
The tone of Veep is so unsteady, though, it’s fair to wonder if we aren’t meant to like her a bit more than we do. Armando Iannucci’s film In the loop was a brilliant London-meets-Washington satire, but here the tone flounders between pointed and broad humor.
There are terrific small touches and lines. Selina’s green-friendly pose is compromised when a cornstarch spoon melts in a coffee cup at a reception, so she worriedly asks her aide, Amy (beautifully played by Anna Chlumsky as the one person with a shred of common sense left) whether she should use plastic or cornstarch. “Stay away from both,” Amy warns, “The utensils are politicized.”
Yet one episode is built around an excruciating, obvious plot about a photo-op at a family-run yogurt shop that turns into a big diarrhea joke. Even the title seems wavering. The word “Veep” sounds like the canned political language no one uses in real life, yet characters on the show toss it around seriously.
Even Veep at its broadest and Scandal at its soapiest, though, reflect something profoundly true about the culture: we are all cynics when it comes to observing Washington, where pants are on fire in all sorts of way.