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Veep - review

Rachel Cooke doesn’t buy the glossy sheen of American politics

Veep, Sky Atlantic

So, I’ve now watched three episodes of Veep, which is pretty much The Thick of It with an American accent and a motorcade. How many times have I laughed? Just the once, so far. The vice-president, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), had turned up at an event organised by her aides. It was supposed to be packed to the rafters with important senators, but the crowd, thanks to an almighty cock-up, was embarrassingly scant. One of the aides, panicking, told her to “mingle”. The veep, also panicking, gave her a look. “Did Simon mingle with Garfunkel?” she said. (Hee, hee. The great thing about Simon and Garfunkel jokes – not that this is a big branch of comedy – is that Art’s fabulous microphone hairdo still does such a lot of the work for you.

Why isn’t Veep funny? It should be hilarious. Often, gags that work on screen look pretty lame on paper. With Veep, it’s the other way round. The dialogue, as it appears in my notebook, is mostly good and sometimes verges on the brilliant: nasty, dry and bulging with bathos. (I love bathos.) For someone like me, who hated The West Wing, a show so cloyingly reverent it made me want to puke, this should be a seriously decent night in: another well-timed blast of – to paraphrase Martin Amis – neurotically smelly, vintage, hoofy wind in the general direction of the massed ranks of special advisers and tyro politicians who will persist in trying to convince the western world that, honestly, they aren’t just in it for themselves.

But, no. It never comes alive. I suppose that one of the problems, for us, is repetition: the childish joy we felt on hearing a character use the word “fuck” in creative and poetic ways previously unknown to man or woman has long since passed. Then again, a part of me thinks I could listen to Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi’s character in The Thick of It) doing just that pretty much forever. Veep desperately needs a Malcolm Tucker figure, and the energy he brings to any scene. Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), who works for the White House and whose arrival in the veep’s office only ever signifies trouble, is moderately creepy. But no one’s scared of him. He isn’t important enough to get away with force ten bollockings.

A bigger handicap is its fatal glossiness. Yes, Armando Iannucci’s new masters at HBO resisted the temptation to ask him to lose the rackety intimacy a single camera provides (Iannucci writes Veep and also directs it, sometimes). But when you look at Selina Meyer, in her Roland Mouret-style dresses and six-inch heels, disbelief creeps in uninvited: not even Nancy Pelosi looks this groomed. I get the whole shtick that the vice-president has no power; that the job is frustrating at best and futile at worst. But this doesn’t mean that if ever a woman were to be elected to the office, she would look like she ate rucola for breakfast and spent most of her time in the cocktail dress department of Bergdorf Goodman. She would probably wear trouser suits and outsized pearl jewellery. When her hair was in a bun, it would be because she hadn’t had time to wash it. When Selina Meyer’s hair is in a bun, she looks like she’s about to shoot an ad campaign for Ralph Lauren Home.

You can spot a lazy show by the speed with which it moves towards the climactic moment. In the case of Veep, for instance, you would have thought the writers would have waited a long time – a whole series, even – before Selina was required to step into the president’s shoes. Good writing is all about withholding. But they throw this plot line away in episode two, when she’s stand-in for about as long as it takes her to put on her mascara. It’s a strangeness that seems all of a piece with Veep’s cockiness. Reheating and reworking so much familiar material isn’t only unambitious; it’s smug, too. Not that anything I say will make any difference. Veep has already been recommissioned. Meanwhile, Iannucci will shortly begin work – oh, how the heart sinks – on an Alan Partridge movie. My lust for novelty marks me out, not for the first time, as a total stick-in-the-mud: hopelessly old-fashioned and irredeemably naive.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture