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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