Now in its fourth season, Veep feels as if it is in a transitional phase. For one thing, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is no longer Veep: she’s the incumbent President, following her own President’s withdrawal at the end of the third season. At the same time, this is the last season that will be written by Armando Iannucci, effectively severing the series’ connection with The Thick Of It. On top of that, many of the supporting characters feel as if they have been shaping up for a new role in the series, or at least adding a new layer to their identity, over the course of this season: Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott) both quit to join a powerful lobbying organisation; Jonah (Timothy Simons) remains in the Veep’s office but finds his star starting to soar after finding himself at the centre of a workplace harassment suit; Gary (Tony Hale) starts to directly influence and intervene in Presidential policy as never before; and Selina’s administrative team (Gary Cole, Kevin Dunn, Matt Walsh and Sufe Bradshaw) find their roles reconfiguring in the wake of her decision to bring in Tom James (Hugh Laurie), an enormously charismatic and popular politician, as her running-mate for President. Whereas previous seasons have tended to be driven by Selina’s restless desire to move beyond her station, or at least to transform the Veep’s office into something worthy of her station, this time around it’s all about staying put, bunkering down and managing to extend herself into something more than an eight-month, interim President. Here, as previously, that turns the series into something of a comic foil and counterpoint to House of Cards, which is always lurking somewhere in the background.
If you had to boil all those changes down to one change, however, you might say that the rhythm of the series is a bit different this time around. Lately – very belatedly – I’ve been getting into The Thick of It, and it illuminates Veep in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. Since The Thick of It is considered such a Holy Grail of political satire, and Veep is so often framed as a vulgarised, “Americanised” version of The Thick of It, I think I was expecting the two series to be more similar than they are. In fact, rather than feel like a dilution or diminution, Veep simply feels like a continuation and development of some of the ideas and flourishes of The Thick of It, which makes sense: after all, it’s not as if Iannucci left his first series to work on his second. Veep was simply his next project, and it tends to redirect and transform the energies of The Thick of It in new and interesting directions. One of the most singular aspects of the The Thick of It is the frenetic hyperactivity of the camerawork, which may have been in vogue around 2005, but was rarely taken to the experimental extreme that it is here. Ten years later, it is still very hard to watch, and while it may look somewhat dated, it does lend the distinctive repartee of the series an incredibly convulsive, claustrophobic and centrifugal rhythm, with most of the dialogue staged and shot within a kind of amorphous, dispersed conversational space that gradually converges upon whoever manages to gain or broker power at any one moment in time.
By the time Veep began, that handheld rhythm had become more or less naturalised in American comedy – albeit in a more understated form – and so that convulsive, claustrophobic and centrifugal aspect is transferred from the camerawork to Iannucci’s mise-en-scenes themselves. One of the byproducts of this frenzied cinematographic style in The Thick of It is the loss of any real sense of space: even after spending an entire episode, or an entire season, in a particular workspace, it’s impossible to fully visualise it any detail, let alone to map it clearly in your mind. To some extent workplace comedies need to keep their workplaces a little unmappable to allow them to feel comforting, cushioning and inclusive – even the workplaces of the American Office and Parks and Recreation aren’t totally knowable – but in the case of The Thick of It that process is taken to an extreme, leaving no scope for even the most residual attachment to the spaces that the characters inhabit. The situation is intensified by the poor quality of the cinematography and the drab décor, which creates a kind of uniform greyscape within which it is not really possible to even really rely on colour in any emphatic way to build a sense of spatial orientation. In a very real way, Iannucci evokes “the thick of it” as a state of mind rather than a discrete place, an ontological and existential state of crisis in which political affiliation fails to ramify as anything concrete, and politics itself has been jettisoned from the sense of space, and the actual spaces, that once provided it with symbolic and ceremonial legitimacy.
Veep, by contrast, in minutely concerned with space, obsessing over it in a distinctively American way. Out of all the high-profile series that have taken place in Washington D.C. over the last five years – House of Cards, Homeland, The Americans and, in the near future, The Good Wife – it is arguably the most preoccupied with tapping into the rhythm of the Capitol as a city. At the moment, American television is peculiarly preoccupied with regionalism, with series often defined by how emphatically they can shape themselves to the particular tones and textures of an apparently unique region. In some part, that’s a way for series to calibrate their cinematicity – establishment of atmosphere conventionally being regarded as more of a cinematic than a televisual achievement – but it also feels like a response to a cinematic milieu in which the United States is increasingly homogenised under the sign of digital spectacle, as well as collapsed into the Asia Pacific region in a fairly peremptory way. As might be expected, that creates a particular bind when it comes to series set in D.C., since the Capitol has traditionally been represented, in cinema, as a kind of sublime space within which regional differences no longer ramify, a space in which stories can be shorn of their regional specificity to achieve a kind comic or tragic grandeur. Of course, there has been no shortage of films that have interrogated that, but nevertheless, the association of D.C. with a certain kind of American universalism makes for an unusual and uneasy match with the regionalist imperative of contemporary television. In fact, each of the series mentioned above might be understood as an attempt to somewhat regionalise D.C.: House of Cards continually alternates between the Capitol and Frank’s hometown of Gaffney, to the point where D.C. comes to feel like an extension of the rural South, as if the Virginia retrocession had never happened; Homeland makes D.C. feel more regional by continually setting it in jarring contrast against the Middle East; and The Americans tends to displace the Capitol itself in favour of the greater Washington suburban sprawl, losing sight of the city amidst the kinds of leafy sightlines and chilly spaces that once preoccupied an older generation of suburban horror and surveillance drama.
Of all of these series, however, Veep is arguably the most successful at evoking the city as a regionalist, even a parochial texture. In large part, that is a product of Selina’s continual displacement from the putative centre of things: as a woman, as a vice-president, and as the leader of a comically inept host of administrative staff. However, unlike The Thick of It, that displacement is figured spatially, rather than cinematographically, as Iannucci effectively envisages the Capitol as a tension between centrifugal and centripetal forces, with Selina always aiming to align herself with the former while finding herself carried away by the latter. Wherever she happens to find herself, however, the net effect is to frame the Capitol as a kind of vortex, a space whose rhythms are always circulating in or circulating out, a very natural fit for a city so dependent on rings roads and surrounding highways, as well as a city whose grid system occurs in both directions, creating something of a concentric rhythm even within a strict rectilinear urban arrangement. And of course the actual Capitol precinct, with its seamless and subliminal blends of neoclassicism and brutalism, is defined above all by the curve and sweep of its structures, particularly in the façade and corridors of the Vice-Presidential chambers where so much of the series takes place.
Of course, Veep isn’t simply a documentary depiction of Washington D.C., nor does it especially rely on location shooting or establishing shots to maintain this rhythm – there is, nothing, for example, that is as emphatically or iconically “D.C.” as the opening credits of House of Cards, at least not in any single scene or sequence. Instead, Iannucci uses Selina’s motorcade and retinue as a way of bending the city around the Capitol, entangling her in one increasingly elastic convoy after another, all of which take her away from the centre of things by promising to bring her closer. In that sense, the series plays first and foremost as physical comedy, with Selina continually, desperately, and quite ingeniously trying to escape the very people that are trying to escort her down corridors, in and out of traffic and from one room to the next, to the point where the series almost plays out in its entirety in these transitional spaces – or works by turning supposedly sacrosanct and static spaces, such as Selina’s office, into something just as transitional, a mere chain in the convoy. As might be expected, that creates a perpetual sense of frustration, which is part of where the series’ comedy lies, along with the darkness of that comedy. For while Selina is undoubtedly inept, there is something about the way she is concentrically constrained by the Capitol landscape that makes it impossible for her, as a woman – and a single woman at that – to be anything but inept. While some critics have suggested that the series paints a fairly sexist portrait of women in power, I think I’d have to disagree with such a reading, since part of the genius of Iannucci’s vision lies in the way in which the expectations surrounding women in Washington – at least women who aspire to the Vice-Presidency, or the Presidency – are turned into a function of the cityscape and the spatial logic of the series as a whole. If one of the fundamental setups of slapstick is the effort to escape from some impossible or inconceivable space, then there is undoubtedly a certain kind of slapstick genius to Veep, as well as a slapstick ingenuity to the way in which Louis-Dreyfus acts with her whole body, working her way out of every sticky situation with the same contorted yet graceful angularities of Elaine’s infamous dance in Season 6 of Seinfeld.
That sense of barely controlled grace under chaos has always been Louis-Dreyfus’ gift, and what has assured her the most successful career post-Seinfeld, since it also ensures – as the reunion arc in Curb Your Enthusiasm made so clear – that she is by far and away the most gifted improviser in the Seinfeld cast. Even a cursory comparison between Veep and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is enough to clarify how thoroughly someone like Jerry Seinfeld thrives on strict scripting, whether on standup or on network television – he is more or less unable to improvise – in stark contrast to Louis-Dreyfus’ efforts to move seamlessly between the two. Whereas part of the pleasure of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm resides in those delirious moments when the actors really start to freestyle in their improvisation, in Veep the distinction between scripted and ad hoc delivery is utterly indiscernible, at least as far as Louis-Dreyfus is concerned – in fact, her gifts are all the more noticeable in that several other key members of the cast, especially the younger actors, are not especially good at improvising. To put it another way, while it’s often quite clear when cast members of Veep are improvising – although not necessarily less enjoyable – it’s impossible to discern when Louis-Dreyfus is straying from the script, which sits delightfully alongside Selina’s difficulty with improvising and, more literally, her difficulty with conducting press conferences and presidential addresses when the script fails her, a recurring joke in the series. That gives Louis-Dreyfus’ performance an extraordinarily volatility, collapsing speech, face and body into a single twitchy energy, to the point where the comedy often stems from unsuccessful attempts to separate them out again, as if the efforts to properly maintain the divisions and discretions of the executive body were transplanted onto Selina’s body in turn. As a result, it often feels as if Selina’s delivery is on the verge of giving away her body, just as she is continually shielding herself against the kind of scrutiny that seeks to attribute her decisions to her femininity, resulting in a comic presence that almost surpasses Louis-Dreyfus’ performance in Seinfeld. Sure, Veep is no Seinfeld, but this is an actress working at the very peak of her comic powers, and Iannucci seems to understand that the series is first and foremost a vehicle for that vision.
For all those reasons, there is something of an aspirational, inspirational quality to Veep that is utterly absent from The Thick of It, and is as much to do with the movement from a British to an American context as anything else. For as cynical as Veep might be about politics, there is something about this continual concentric rhythm that gives Selina’s movements through Washington something of the quality of an ascent – and not merely in terms of her political career, but in the sense that she has tapped into some great upwards movement that transcends her political party, her personal capacity and even the ways in which her administrative staff work to thwart it. Of course, the ascent is neither steady nor stable – the show wouldn’t work if it was – but that provisional quality is also what gives Louis-Dreyfus such scope for improvisation, and Selina such scope for the kinds of mercurial indecision that constitute the series’ comic and dramatic momentum. Whereas The Thick of It focused on characters who were empowered, entrenched or doomed, there is a more buoyant sense of treading water here that imbues Iannucci’s vision with a sparkling freshness, a sense that every day is a new day even when things appear to be at their worst for the Meyer campaign. If D.C. is presented as a series of slapstick scenarios from which Selina has to escape, it also doubles as the key to liberation. Attempting to both elude and consummate her relation to the Capitol – often at one and the same moment – Selina’s movements beautifully bring out the texture and ambience of D.C. as a city best glimpsed in transit – not an immediately intuitive proposition – from one of the many corridors along which the series slides and scrapes. While there is clearly a conscious change of tone and direction for Iannucci here, I also want to say that there is likely something unconscious – or at least unavoidable – in the way in which D.C. musters up this aspirational affect despite all the series’ narrative evidence to the contrary. I have only been to D.C. for short periods of time, but even that was enough to feel how emphatically this cityscape, with its unique blend of neoclassical and brutalist architecture, is designed to promulgate just the kind of rapturous optimism that is always lurking somewhere around the fringes of even the most cynical and disenchanted moments in Veep.
In many ways, however, Season 4 clarifies this distinctive comic signature because, as mentioned earlier, it signals something of a departure from it: this time around Selina is no longer the aspirational Vice-President, but the incumbent President. That said, the scriptwriters introduce some fairly ingenious twists and plot devices to ensure that aspirational quality remains. For one thing, Selina – like Frank Underwood – is only an interim President, and has no sooner commenced her term in office than she has to begin worrying about the upcoming election. At the same time, a last-minute shortage of candidates forces Selina to choose a running partner in an extraordinarily charismatic, assured and compelling politician, Tom James (Hugh Laurie), who quickly starts to exceed her in popularity, to the point where he becomes the clear candidate for President by the end of the series. Once again, Selina is relegated to the role of Vice-President, even within her own Presidency, and the events of Election Night – which takes up the final episode – are carefully crafted so as to leave that possibility open. On top of all that, a series of White House crises forces Selina to reconfigure her administrative team more than at any other point in the series, and while the main characters this season are still more or less the same – if not all a part of Selina’s retinue – this redistribution reintroduces something of the barely controlled chaos of the first two seasons. The situation is not helped by the fact that Tom James becomes something of a stable centre to the series, providing a counterpoint that Selina has never had. Here, for the first time in his career, Iannuucci presents us with something of a model politician who has a chance of succeeding, and one of the great delights of the series is seeing Laurie playing it straight. Ironically, because it renders him so anomalous with the rest of the cast, and is so anomalous with his work on House, his more or less naturalistic presence ends up feeling like one of the main eccentricities and innovations of this season, and a real drawcard for Season 5.
Nevertheless, as Selina’s bid for continued Presidency draws near, the series starts to lose something of what might be described as its Vice-Presidential rhythm. In part, that energy is redirected back onto the campaign trail, but that very redirection also signals the renegotiation with the Capitol that feels so prevalent this season. At the same time, you start to glimpse a new kind of urgency and energy to the series – it’s only a matter of time before things head to Camp David, or the White House Crisis Room – but the effect is a little like being poised at the very turning of the tide, in a slack water in which one definitive movement hasn’t yet been replaced by another. Among other things, that means that some of the secondary characters don’t hold up quite as well this season, not necessarily because they’re written or acted with any less conviction, but because in the past they subsisted on a rhythm that has somewhat slackened here. At the same time, this slackening – or reconfiguration – of Selina’s administrative machine means that this is perhaps the season of Veep in which personal relationships trump administrative relationships in terms of their screen time and charisma factor. In particular, this is the season in which Selina’s relationship with her daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) – one of my favourite parts of the series – is most pronounced, while it’s also the season in which we start to glimpse something of Selina’s life before politics, as evinced in a wonderful episode in which she has some of her college girlfriends over for a dinner at the White House. Sure, earlier seasons may have focused more on Selina’s love and sex life, as well as her past relationships, but these always felt quite continuous with her political life – either because her ex-lovers threatened her public image or because they actually became part of her administrative retinue – rather than offering the more domestic atmosphere on display here.
None of which is intended as a criticism of the season, or the series as a whole. If you think about it, making the transition to the Oval Office was both a necessary and a bold move for a series so premised upon that Vice-Presidential rhythm. Still, as many commentators have noted, it’s questionable whether the series even makes sense as Veep anymore if Selina does in fact become President. So long as it maintains or develops that distinct rhythm, I think that it will – and so maybe it is fortunate that Iannucci has stepped away from the project. With TV series increasingly able to envisage seven or eight season runs, it’s not uncommon for shows to pass through distinct phases, with the result that the departure of Iannucci at this point may be what is needed to consolidate Veep as it moves into its second act. For that reason, I think I’m more curious about the fifth season than any so far, and looking forward to its debut in April this year.