“Hello, what do you want, you can’t have it, goodbye.”
—Sue Wilson, Vice President Selina Meyer’s scheduler on Veep
They are the yin and yang of political television. On one side, The West Wing and Borgen — sincere, earnest and idealistic. On the other, Veep and House of Cards — cynical, dark, paeans to dysfunction. (There is no yin or yang to Scandal. It’s just from another planet.)
As much as you might want Jed Bartlet and Birgitte Nyborg on your side, however, the brutal fact is both shows have ceased production. Selina Meyer and Francis Underwood are in charge. They are our contemporary TV political lodestars. Vice President Underwood just completed his second run on Netflix earlier this year. And Veep’s third season begins this Sunday on HBO.
When last we left actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s hapless Vice President Selina Meyer on Veep, she had been groped by the Finnish Prime Minister’s husband, walked through a glass door, set the timing for a hostage rescue based on her schedule, plagiarized (via staff) a line from a rival’s speech, had been dragged into a money-for-access scandal by her ex-husband, and decided to run for President.
As for Kevin Spacey’s malevolent Vice President Francis Underwood on House of Cards, well, there are no words. Except here are a few: he kills; he orchestrates impeachments; he seduces; his cold, lizard eyes destroy.
What is a sincere, earnest, idealistic policy wonk to do? Meyer and Underwood are monsters. If the DC policy mill is anything like that portrayed in these shows, repeated exposure should sink you into a pit of deep despair.
They’re just TV shows, you might be saying. No one takes them seriously. Except they do.
Think of all the people who say they got into politics because of The West Wing. Or more terrifyingly, that they learned how American politics work by watching the show.
In 2010, the EU’s Foreign Policy minister Catherine Ashton explained that watching The West Wing, was her “beginner’s guide to the mechanics of Washington life.” Meanwhile, after almost every crisis in the Obama Administration — bad debate performance, government shutdown — Jed Bartlet is there to advise. (Birgitte Nyborg isn’t there to advise because she’s Danish, and not enough Americans have watched her show, Borgen. But do. It’s awesome.)
Lately, Obama himself seems to be enamored by a more forbidding figure. “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” the President joked about the DC of House of Cards recently. Underwood is “getting a lot of stuff done.”
More recently, as the Veep cast and creator took to the campaign, um, promotion, trail for their show, they bragged how DC insiders praise the show for its accuracy. The show’s creator and all around master of humiliation comedy Armando Ianucci recently told an audience: “But the worst piece of feedback we’ll get is when we actually think that we’ve come up with the most ridiculous story… and we do it, and then we get a call from Washington where they’ll ask, ‘How did you find that out?’”
Ianucci and the Veep cast are right. No show captures the emotional truth of DC better. The West Wing and House of Cards fail because they both subscribe to the great-men-dedicated-to-an-idea-and-surrounded-by-a-small-band-of-devotees-get-things-done school of politics. (Borgen does too, but the prime player is a woman, so we know it’s unrealistic. Plus, it’s Danish.) Underwood’s goals are vicious and solipsistic. Bartlet’s are progressive and starry-eyed. But the shows have more in common than not. In both shows, the players have agency. No endless Task Force meetings for them. No 800-page reports, the third or fourth to be produced, dissecting events from seven years ago. No—Underwood and Bartlet get stuff done.
But not our Veep. Selina Meyer and her feckless band of staff started season one trying to make their mark with cornstarch utensils, filibuster reform, and clean jobs. Nothing got done. By season two, Meyer was more popular and had more access to power. Nothing got done. Starting this Sunday, she is running for President.
Veep’s DC is about as bungling and bilious as it’s possible to be. It is full of foul-mouthed, back-biting, powerless, thoughtless, inept, and egotistical figures. Veep is accurate. (I hasten to add that I know plenty of people in DC who are not back-biting, powerless, thoughtless, inept, or egotistical.)
Once you wipe away your tears of laughter, you want to crawl under your desk awash in new tears of dejection. One solution to the emotional whiplash is to just skip watching Veep. But not me. I’ll be tuning in and watching with unabashed glee this Sunday. I’ll also be thinking about Mark Twain’s words: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
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(Photo: Veep Facebook)