Veep: Armando Iannucci's odyssey of political horror and Julia Louis-Dreyfus's star turn

You won’t find escapism in this tale of the United States’ first female vice-president – just the brutally funny savagery of politics

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus won a record six Emmy awards for her role as the cruel, self-absorbed Selina Meyer in Veep. Photograph: AP
Julia Louis-Dreyfus won a record six Emmy awards for her role as the cruel, self-absorbed Selina Meyer in Veep. Photograph: AP

Last modified on Sun 21 Feb 2021 20.39 EST

If you’re looking for a salve or an escape in your bingeable TV, look further than Veep. Don’t even think about hitting play. Get as far as you can from this show, a seven-season odyssey of human cruelty, pettiness, and political horror. You won’t find escapism in this tale of the United States’ first female vice-president – just the savage and brutally funny, the mean, the insane and the inane.

Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep is a show with little-to-no faith in the political system, which sees a climate of backflipping, false promises, and nothing-speak as the structures of government working effectively.

Created by the political comedy pessimist Armando Iannucci as an American analogue to his cult British comedy The Thick of It, Veep views 99% of elected officials as ruthless, power-hungry loons, and the other 1% as rubes. Better than pretty much any other show about systems of institutional power, it demonstrates how politicians from both sides of the aisle are, more often than not, willing to dilute and diminish their “beliefs” in order to maintain their own power. It’s farcical, sure, but it’s not exactly satire – everything rings far too true for that.

Kevin Dunn as Ben Cafferty, Sam Richardson as Richard Splett and Anna Chlumsky as Amy Brookheimer in Veep.
Kevin Dunn as Ben Cafferty, Sam Richardson as Richard Splett and Anna Chlumsky as Amy Brookheimer in Veep. Photograph: HBO/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Set roughly in real time and beginning in 2012, Veep follows the political trajectory of Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer, a Baltimore Democrat and senator turned presidential candidate turned vice-president. At the beginning of the series, she is powerless and frustrated, neutered by a position that carries more symbolic power than any real authority or autonomy. It is a bad role for Selina, who is, at turns, petty, childish, self-absorbed, cruel, authoritarian, and stupid. She is teeth-gnashingly, mouth-foamingly desperate for any semblance of power, and uses any opportunity she can to assert her dominance over others, most notably the low-level incompetent team around her: highly-strung, callous chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky), sleazy strategist Dan (Reid Scott), bumbling communications officer Mike (Matt Walsh), and bag man Gary (Tony Hale). Selina is a psychotic marvel of a creation by Iannucci and Louis-Dreyfus, the latter of whom tears into the role with career-defining vigour, and who won a record-breaking six Emmy awards for it over the course of the show.

At the beginning of the series, Selina and her team are portrayed as nasty and socially incompetent, but largely harmless – bureaucratic goons who are too self-absorbed to do any real harm. Around halfway through the series, though, a shift occurs. Iannucci departed Veep at the end of season four, passing the reins to David Mandel, most well-known as a writer for Seinfeld. The difference in tone is stunning: Mandel, an American, casts a sharper, more vicious eye over US politics.

In the show’s final seasons, Selina becomes an icon of deft, horrifying cruelty, a political agent with no driving forces other than her lust for more power and her hatred for women and working-class people. In its most breathtaking and canny sweeps, we see Selina leveraging identity markers like her womanhood while actively pushing to diminish the rights of non-rich and non-white women. In its final three seasons, Veep becomes a terrifying beast, a morality tale with operatic beats that also happens to be hysterically funny. Its ending is bleak, unflinching, and decidedly brilliant –a meditation on the inherent corruption of power that pulls no punches, comically or emotionally.

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