Louis-Dreyfus brings Beltway absurdities to life in ‘Veep’

Avoid the sporks. That’s the cocktail-party warning given to the vice president »»

Avoid the sporks. That’s the cocktail-party warning given to the vice president of the United States on HBO’s tart new comedy “Veep,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Plastic utensils, warns the VP’s chief of staff, “are politicized.”

Disaster, or at least coast-to-coast embarrassment, lurks near every photo-op for the nation’s second-in-charge, and “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci couldn’t have found a better candidate for humiliation than Louis-Dreyfus in the role of Selina Meyer. Not since “Seinfeld” has the actor been given such a rich comic landscape to play out her winning blend of mortification and ire.

Handed the White House-edited version of a speech she wrote, the appalled Louis-Dreyfus curses and snaps, “I have ‘Hello’ and prepositions!” Nothing else survived. Iannucci, well-known in Britain for his 2005 political satire series “The Thick of It” and its feature-film spin-off “In the Loop,” has a good feel for Beltway absurdities. To “normalize” her image, Selina drops by a black-owned yogurt shop, but not before an intense staff debate over which flavor sends the best message. (Jamaican rum beats mint).

Dry and unsentimental, the show has more in common with the original British version of “The Office” than its American counterpart.

Running late for a meeting with her emotionally distant college-age daughter, Selina tells an aide, without a hint of maternal remorse, “Something more important than Catherine came up.”

Speculation that “Veep” (which lists former New York Times columnist Frank Rich as an executive producer) would be a thinly-disguised lampoon of Sarah Palin proves false, judging from the three half-hour episodes available for review. Selina’s political affiliation is unidentifiable. We know virtually nothing of the off-camera president aside from his apparent disdain for the woman who’ll take his place in an emergency.

A former senator, Selina wielded considerable power before landing a job that carries only the potential for it. She’s nobody’s fool, and both Louis-Dreyfus and “Veep” are best when depicting the petty slights and comeuppances that signal unspoken power plays. The show’s sharp wit comes more from cleverness than sitcom slapstick.

The first episode, written and directed by Iannucci, introduces the veep’s retinue (and the series’ excellent cast). Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”) plays Selina’s toadying handler; Anna Chlumsky (“In the Loop”) is her chief of staff; Matt Walsh (“Hung”) is the seasoned press handler whose personal life is so barren he invents a pet dog; and Reid Scott (“The Big C”) is a new staff member as ambitious as he is handsome.

It’s impossible to resist Louis-Dreyfus’s charms, especially when Selina’s self-regard rises and falls with every fresh tidbit of Oval Office gossip. “Well, that’s terrific news,” she says, fooling no one, upon hearing that a presidential health-scare was merely heartburn. Even better is the look on Louis-Dreyfus’ face when the White House flunky provides the capper: “You’re needed back at the yogurt store.”

“Veep” airs Sunday nights on HBO. © Bloomberg News 2012

2012-04-19

Arts & Culture