The showrunner of HBO’s acclaimed comedy “Veep,” Armando Iannucci, recently announced he is leaving the show as of the end of its fourth season, which occurred last month. Even for fans of this show, this may prove to be a very productive development. Despite having as many classic laugh lines as ever, “Veep” may have exhausted the comedic possibilities of its self-defined universe and needs to refresh its tropes. Fortunately, the new showrunner has the perfect example of how the show should develop in HBO’s comedy that preceded “Veep” on the Sunday-night schedule—Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley.”
From “Veep’s” outset, policy substance has existed only in the background, if at all. It is never used as a motivation for the characters or a direct plotline. Part of that has been an effort to create a self-contained universe that is not supposed to be “based on” anything real. (This has had some salutary effects, such as how the only real guest-stars on the show were some members of the Baltimore Orioles in season one—a welcome contrast to the cameos by real politicians and journalists that have overrun “House of Cards” like locusts, or lobbyists.)
It also may have been partly due to modesty from Iannucci about whether he can master the substance of American politics. It’s even possible that he wanted to avoid the trap of demonizing the “other” side (from Iannucci’s own politics, that may not have been easy for him). For most of the second and third seasons, it worked well: the focus on the personality types and the every-day-is-a-crisis atmosphere, together with the awesome writing, was enough to make the show the best one ever made about American politics.
‘Veep’ Has Reached Its Limits
But this past season illustrated the limits of “Veep’s” internal rules. The writing remained stellar, but too much of the show repeated the same themes. All the same people were still screwing everything up all the time, with a wonderfully eloquent chorus of profanity. This still resulted in its regular quota of permanently quotable lines (“Future Whatever,” Amy’s departing rant). The show introduced new characters and roles, but failed to capitalize on them. Hugh Laurie’s glorious Tom James was introduced as an almost-decent vice-presidential nominee, Dan and Amy became lobbyists, and Selina even became president.
But none of those functions realized their potential for new comedy. Dan and Amy’s roles as lobbyists were underexplored (despite one memorable scene where Dan unctuously expresses his desire to “take zucchini to the next level” when meeting with a vegetable-producing client) and even Selina’s role as president didn’t raise the scripted stakes for the inevitable screw-ups.
In fact, the past season’s failure to raise its game inadvertently highlighted the one theme the show has struggled for its duration: balancing the inability of anyone to ever do anything right without raising the obvious question of “How the hell did they get to these top positions?” “Veep” struck that balance reasonably well in its second and third seasons for many of the characters, especially Selina. There were still some exceptions (press secretary Mike McClintock would be eaten for lunch by any 21-year-old intern at the Free Beacon or Center for American Progress), but many of the characters actually showed that they had skills in addition to foibles.
But this past season, they resorted too much to the trope of, to paraphrase Amy’s glorious parting rant, “You couldn’t fill a bath without the Coast Guard having to be called in.” They also had to resort too often to the show’s secret weapon, which is Selina revealing herself to be a truly horrible person. This is incredibly useful in small doses (the best example being the season two premiere when Selina guilt-trips Amy into not going to her father’s bedside on midterm election night when Amy’s father may have suffered a stroke), but when overused, as it was this season, it is counterproductive.
Time for ‘Veep’ to Add Some Political Substance
Despite the laudable intentions of “Veep’s” avoidance of political substance, the show can no longer afford to cut itself off from the motivations of policy. There is no need for them to be afraid of doing so. The writers need only watch “Silicon Valley” to see how it’s done. What sets “Silicon Valley” apart is that it takes the substance of its subject matter seriously. Judge and his team recognize that taking the substance seriously opens up whole new sources for comedy. Yes, “down rounds” and non-compete clauses can be used for comedy if you understand them, and the people who engage in them, well enough.
Without engaging the political substance of DC, “Veep” can no longer portray DC’s inhabitants well. It’s not just that even the crassest political operators cannot be accurately portrayed without reference to the causes they serve (and in which they typically truly believe, regardless of how many compromises they make or checks they cash). Using policy substance as an indispensable part of the characters’ roles also will show how the characters became so powerful in the first place, despite their serial failures.
For example, “Silicon Valley” has portrayed Erlich Bachman as a hilarious buffoon, but also shows his real strengths, charisma, and value to Pied Piper. Think of how he clearly presents their business plan to Peter Gregory in season one, securing the seed investment. It also provides additional context to mine for laughs: Selina’s staff torpedoing a “family” bill is funny. It’s even funnier if we know that Selina and her staff have been working for the exact policy proposals in that bill for decades, and they now have to undercut their own lives’ work.
Incompetence Is an Argument for Limited Government
In fact, “Veep” is ideally designed to allow its creators to uncloak their (presumed) natural liberalism without being unfair to the other side in the manner of an Aaron Sorkin. As it is, Selina and her team clearly are liberal in a substance-less manner (cue the Hillary jokes), perhaps because despite their best efforts, the show’s creators can’t wrap their heads around any other political orientation. (For Hollywood, this represents progress.)
But as Kyle Smith noted in 2013, the permanent incompetence of every character on the show is itself the best portrayal of the argument for limited government ever likely to emerge from Hollywood. So even if Selina Meyer is outed as a proud liberal, the show’s merciless ethos would prevent it from devolving into a satirical “West Wing.” At the risk of emulating George W. Bush’s assessment of Vladimir Putin, when it comes to the makers of “Veep,” I trust the blackness of their hearts.
While “Veep” avoids the “pulled from the headlines” pattern, it seems impeachable to avoid the material provided by the age of Obama. In fact, what is Obamacare, if not the greatest “Veep” storyline ever? The centerpiece of the liberal project of the last several decades, on which the administration bet its legacy, and nobody in the White House has any idea that the website may as well have been built by Bighead from “Silicon Valley?”
The compromises and struggle to get the bill passed, the utter chaos in passing the bill after Scott Brown’s Senate election, the website fiasco and fix could easily get an entire season out of it. And the recent King v. Burwell decision showed how it could be mined over multiple seasons: nobody had any idea that the text of the bill contained what may have been a self-destruct device? If “Silicon Valley” can mine laughs out of the quest for some venture capital and intellectual property law, just imagine what “Veep” could do with, say, the Jonathan Gruber videos.
So while David Mandel (of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) has been named “Veep’s” new showrunner, fans of the show should hope he has a chat with Judge. Personally, I’m looking forward to Ben Cafferty’s profane rendition of the “three-legged stool” on which Obamacare is based.