There’s a curiously sad moment towards the end of a recent episode of Veep in which Selina Meyer—the acting President of the United States in light of her former boss’ resignation—opens up to her own vice president about her doubts. She has her administration attempting to covertly kill her own bill because its unpopularity with the voting public. She’s sick. She’s a little confused. And she’s not sure of her next move.Our politicians are not wizards, super villains or even tricksters. They are men and women, doing their best against the overwhelming odds to the daily grind.
“You think I’m doing the right thing here?” Selina asks through a stuffy nose. “I mean, this is a good bill. Even watered down, I think it’s going to make a difference in people’s lives.”
“You’re the President,” her own vice-president tells her. “It’s not for me to tell you what to do.”
“Yeah,” she says in a small, defeated voice. “Guess I should kill it.”
As Selina, Julia Louis-Dreyfus handles this scene with with a sort of refreshing sort of patheticness. Up to this point, Selina has been a politician first, with all other roles (wife, mother, friend, human being, etc.) coming at a very distant second. She hedges her own bets, belittles her staff, sabotages her family and gambles with the country’s well-being. But here, we get a little sense of why she might have gotten into politics in the first place: to help other people. She knows she has to kill the bill if she wants a shot at re-election (re-election being the chief end of politics, both on this show and in real life), but somewhere inside, the embers of idealism still smolder.
For most Americans, Washington D.C. is a little like Hollywood. We’re familiar with the finished product—the shiny consumables that are fed to us through the media. But we don’t know much about what goes on behind the scenes, other than a vague sense that we probably wouldn’t like it if we did.
The television industry is aware of this, which is why politics is such fertile ground for a premise. What’s going on underneath the iceberg, when the cameras aren’t around and the reporters have been jettisoned? What do these powerful figures, who seem at once groaningly ubiquitous and forever unknowable, actually do when they’re not telling us what they think we want to hear?
One of the first modern shows to address to take that question seriously was The West Wing, which has a reputation for being a forerunner of television’s current golden age. Aaron Sorkin’s critically adored show chronicled the many trials of President Jed Bartlett (portrayed with memorable gravitas by Martin Sheen) and his sterling administration.
In Sorkin’s world, our politicians are American gods gifted with other-worldly intellect, wit, work ethic and moral fiber. Though the days may be evil, The West Wing’s episodes generally ended with a seismic victory against the forces of chaos and selfish ambition.
It’s a happy fiction, made all the sadder because of how badly we wanted it to be real. No matter how many times you watch C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) turn a reporter’s gotcha question on its own head or Leo McGarry (the late, great John Spencer) dismantle a rival’s petty accusations, you know the show you’re watching rivals Game of Thrones in its fantastic nature. It’s pleasant, even inspiring, but not particularly useful in terms of dealing with reality.
On the other side of the spectrum is House of Cards, which matched America’s growing cynicism by feeding us images of the White House we suspect in our darkest imaginations. The first episode of the second season ends with Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood dropping his cufflinks on the counter where the initials “F” and “U” serve as a very on-the-nose depiction of just how House of Cards’ politicians feel about people like you and me.
In House of Cards, our politicians aren’t heroes. They’re Machiavellian puppet masters who would just as soon throw you off a subway platform as win your vote. In this vision, voters are pawns in a game they are too dense to even know is being played, let alone understand. No piece of legislation is passed that is not part of some grander, evil scheme. Elections contain only bare traces of free will.
All told, it’s a lot like what your uncle says about politics on Facebook. And, yes, it’s probably not totally divorced from reality—any given day is bound to give us enough headlines to fuel political cynicism well into the twenty-second century—but even the most jaded libertarian would have to agree that House of Cards’ politicians seem a bit more brilliant than real-life experience would lead us to believe. The Underwoods, scheming in their mansions and fineries, are less like Lord and Lady Macbeth than they are Darth Vader and the White Witch, crafters of impossibly complex machinations the likes of which mere mortals could scarcely perceive.
And then there’s Veep.
The Meyers Have It
The show follows the many misadventures of Selina in her troubled and troubling journey from ineffectual, irrelevant vice-president (one of the show’s best running gags was the fact that neither she nor the viewer ever once saw the President) to being, by a couple odd twists of fate, the President herself—making her harried, beleaguered staff suddenly a handful of the most powerful people in the world.
There’s the sweetly dopey Mike (Matt Walsh—not to be confused with the not-very-sweet blogger of the same name); Selina’s communications chief is occasionally good at making the press laugh but not good at much else. There’s Gary (Tony Hale), whose simpering codependence here makes Buster Bluth look like Mad Max. And then there’s long-suffering, eternally frazzled Amy (Anna Chlumsky), the one who still seems occasionally terrified by the snake oil salesman she could so easily become.
These are neither saints nor shysters, but clay-footed bureaucrats. They’re all varying degrees of loyal and competent, often lazy, usually selfish, and then given to sudden, shocking acts of kindness. They are, in other words, a lot like the people you work with. A lot like you yourself, actually.
Veep’s editing style highlights all this. While not as obviously indebted to documentary style shooting as The Office, the show still retains a voyeuristic quality that highlights the job’s daily dullness. For every serious victory or even major setback, there are days of boring emails, superfluous meetings and aimless spreadsheets, all captured on Veep in every ounce of its aggravating lack of pathos.
It’s very, very funny because it’s so, so recognizable. These people toss around phrases like “war with Iran” and “state of emergency” the way you might say “vacuum the living room.” These are the words and actions of people for whom familiarity has bred contempt. The worst of them are just plugging the clock, biding their time until retirement. The best of them carry a totem of their best selves somewhere inside that fuels their daily fight to make the world a better place.
But most of them are like Selina herself—tired, occasionally sad at the state of things, and every so often open to asking “You think I’m doing the right thing here?”
Because here is Veep’s secret: there’s nothing magical about politics. Our politicians are not wizards, super villains or even tricksters. They are men and women, doing their best against the overwhelming odds to the daily grind. And our best hope, as citizens, is to think of them not as towering icons or evil geniuses, but people like you, me and Selina, going into work everyday—often begrudgingly, sometimes not—hoping our next move will be the right one.