British satire hits the White House

Julia Louis Dreyfus. Photo / Supplied
Julia Louis Dreyfus. Photo / Supplied

It is one of the strangest jobs in politics. As Vice-President of the United States, you are famously just a heartbeat away from becoming the most powerful person on the planet. Yet the job is often seen as pointless, boring and, in a strange way, slightly demeaning.

Perfect territory then for the deviser of The Thick of It, the satire that nailed the paranoias, insecurities and petty jealousies of London political life. And the bizarre experience of being a number two to the world's most important number one is the chosen setting for Armando Iannucci's latest foray into lampooning the political world.

"Being vice-president is so near and yet so far. It is a comic situation to be in," Iannucci said as America geared up for the first episode of Veep, starring former Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice-President Selina Meyer. In one clip from the HBO series, a White House aide approaches Meyer and informs her that the president has "severe chest pains".

"I ... am ... so ... sorry," Meyer struggles to say as emotions of glee, hysteria, delight and fear do battle for control of her face.

To his fans, this is familiar Iannucci territory. After all, this is the man who spun The Thick of It into the acclaimed film In the Loop, which hilariously but darkly explored the run-up to the Iraq war on both sides of the Atlantic and was nominated for an Oscar.

After spending weeks meeting Washington insiders, including a tour of the White House, Iannucci was pleased to see that life around the Oval Office offers the same fertile ground as The Thick of It. "I am constantly surprised by how cluttered and dirty the offices were. I remember seeing a desk in the west wing that could maybe have fitted two chairs, but instead there were five chairs and five computer monitors all squeezed around it," he said. That drawing back of the curtain of power and glamour to reveal an interior world of petty interests and human-sized practical problems seems to be there in Veep.

Louis-Dreyfus's Meyer is a very human creation, a middling senator thrust into a position she seems entirely unsure of, surrounded by staff who mix idiocy, cynicism and ambition in equal quantities. In one scene a stressed-out Meyer is about to give an important speech when she turns to an aide and tells him: "I am a political leper and an emotional timebomb. So, here's an idea. Let's put me on stage."

The early buzz has been warm. "A black humour vision of politics at its bleakest, in which both sides have been co-opted by money and special interests and are reduced to posturing, subterfuge, grandstanding and photo ops. Naturally, it's hilarious," wrote the New York Times magazine.

Louis-Dreyfus prepared for her role by speaking to former vice-presidents.

Many vice-presidents have fought tough primary battles against the man who occupies the top job. Thus there may be unsettled grudges galore. A vice-president's role is also notoriously undefined.

Tasks are given or taken away. Advice is given or ignored. Orders have to be obeyed and dissent is not tolerated.

Meyer is handed a speech that has been gone over by the president's staff, who pencilled through huge swaths of it. "This has been pencil-f***ed completely!" complains Meyer to a communications staffer. "Yes. Front and back. Very little romance," the aide matter-of-factly replies.

Iannucci believes that American viewers are cynical enough about their politics and their national leaders to embrace it. Or at least get the joke.

- Observer

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