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Now and Then: 'Veep' and Why We Need Satire Right Now

Television
by Matt Brennan
April 17, 2013 2:35 PM
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "Veep"

Satire and solemnity are tense bedfellows, and in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings -- after the flags of nations stiffened in the white smoke of the blast, after the dead began to be named, the wounded tallied, the innumerable stories of bravery recounted -- you might say the latter is the order of the day, and you would be right.

Boston is, as far as a kid who grew up in the suburbs can claim so, my hometown, and like everyone I followed the coverage of the attacks on Monday with one eye, keeping the other on Facebook and Twitter and the text messages on my phone, compiling a mental spreadsheet of those who had so far written to say they were safe, and those who had not. In those solemn hours, and for the victims and their families many more to come, there was no space for satire. But we need it, still.

Because even as those hours passed it became clear that a dangerous tendency was already afoot, one unworthy of those killed and maimed, of those who responded -- unworthy, frankly, of us all. Conspiracy theories abounded. Unconfirmed reports turned into front-page news. Accusations were lobbed and pursued. This tendency was dangerous because, in the Internet age, assumptions invariably multiply, not divide. And assumptions without evidence are the fabric of bad decisions.

We need satire right now because satire is a safety valve. It reminds us of what's true by showing us what's false, and then reduces falsehoods to their rightful size -- almost nothing -- with its ridicule.

Such is the world of Scottish polymath Armando Iannucci, creator of the BBC series "The Thick of It" (2005 - 2012), co-writer and director of 2009's "In the Loop," and now the brains behind HBO's "Veep," which began its second season Sunday night. At the heart of Iannucci's profane brand of political satire is the insanity of empty posturing, which is, after all, the impulse from which conspiracy theories, false accusations and bad assumptions are born.

All three share spare production design, documentary-style camerawork, and numerous recurring cast members. Yet they also offer a coherent, if loopy, worldview: the public personas of the characters are just thin veneers for their lazy, venal, selfish -- though not always morally bankrupt -- private selves.

"In the Loop," which lampoons Anglo-American statecraft in the days leading up to a war that smells suspiciously like Iraq, pits inept British minister Simon Foster (the perfectly milquetoast Tom Hollander) against a cadre of more powerful, more ruthless, more cunning "allies" in his government and ours. In the weeds with the Prime Minister's chief of staff Malcolm Tucker following an ill-timed remark on an interview program, Foster shovels his original statement straight into a hole of his own digging. "'Climb the mountain of conflict'?" Malcolm rails later. "You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!"

Tom Hollander in "In the Loop"

"Veep," too, contrasts the usual nonsense of the stump speech with the vulgarity of ambition. Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), opens the second season on the campaign trail, speaking on behalf of candidates across the country in advance of the midterm elections. ""There is no I in freedom!" she says, with unconvincing ardor. "Freedom is not me-dom. It's we-dom!" In her office later, though, she'll be all about the implacable "I," demanding, along with an expanded role in the administration, a "Cartier-encrusted dildo."

Like the rest of Iannucci's work, "Veep" has a bleak absurdist vein that puts it at a slight remove from contemporary politics, which too often swerve from tragedy to farce. Last season it hit its stride only intermittently, and along with "The Thick of It" and "In the Loop," often seemed divorced from satire's other, equally important, function: social criticism.

But I do not think it too far a stretch to say that the satire of "Veep," "In the Loop," and "The Thick of It" is exactly what we need to remind us that what we hear is not the same as what we know, and it's in maintaining sight of the difference that we will do justice to the suffering of the past few days. Isn't Alex Ross, the "false flag" conspiracy theorist, just a malign version of one of Iannucci's preening men-on-the-make, taking advantage of someone else's bad news to make news of his own? Is not the Post's rush to report a Saudi suspect in custody just a more unsettling emblem of the same impulse to get in the first word that makes Iannucci's characters run their mouths?

It was with this in mind that I finally sat down last night to watch the season premiere of "Veep," assured that the right time for this kind of protective satire -- for some of us, in some ways -- is now. Near the end of the episode, Selina raises her voice in the Oval Office to the absent president's senior strategist, about some slight from their electoral campaign. A tussle ensues, and the lipstick her personal aide has been searching for the entire episode smacks the strategist in the eye before spilling its bright pink contents all over the seal woven into the carpet. It's a frantic moment, half slapstick and half satire, and it turned out to be just what I needed.

"The Thick of It" is available for free on Hulu. "In the Loop" is available on iTunes, Amazon Video, and DVD. "Veep" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on on HBO.


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