The most ruthless killing on HBO last Sunday night did not involve wildlings and cannibals. Seven years since The West Wing went off air, the show was officially slayed, and the last episode of Veep was caught holding the bloody knife. Veep’s been stabbing at Aaron Sorkin’s opus for two-plus seasons now, using the titular character’s White House ambitions to impugn political righteousness, a righteousness President Bartlett’s team perspired.
Veep embodies the public’s perception of politics in the post-“Yes We Can” era, where CPACs, filibusters and the Brothers Koch come to mind before progress. In last Sunday’s episode, “Alicia,” a poster of Faustus hangs inconspicuously in the background as Vice President Selena Meyers, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, wrestles with supporting either a single mother’s noble efforts to expand childcare or the stodgy Democratic senators whose endorsements are crucial to her Presidential run. In true Faustian fashion, Meyer’s sells her soul to the political establishment to the ire of the single mother and the viewer.
Souls on The West Wing were rarely stained by the devilish lure of ambition and greed. If a character was ever tempted to hop off the righteousness wagon, a pathos-tugging resolution would Purell the character’s morality free of impropriety.
Such a resolution is found in Season Six’s “King Corn,” where two of the candidates to replace POTUS Bartlett are faced with their own Faustian dilemma. They can follow their convictions and rebuke ethanol subsidies or they could bite the kernel and appease the all-important Iowan caucus-goer. In the world of The West Wing, both candidates could stand strong against ethanol subsidies. Both candidates could refuse to compromise their beliefs, laugh about the political “suicide” they just committed and still go on to obtain their respective party’s nomination. The conclusion to “King Corn” is uplifting, cozy and completely fanciful.
The West Wing isn’t deserving of scorn. Its writing is palatable syrup and its sentimentality is warming. It’s the perfect show for your dad as he transitions into a grandfather. But its tone never seemed as outdated as it does in the wake of Veep’s tour de destruction of a third season. The glossy veneer of virtuous public service has become more muddled in the public’s eye since Toby, Sam, Josh, C.J. and Leo first started talking while-walking on screen.
Veep eviscerates the notion that one can survive in D.C.’s main industry without caving to the devil. While still much zanier than real politics, the show appears more rooted in reality. In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.” Both Veep and The West Wing are part-caricatures of real politics, with each setting camp in polar opposite ideological corners. With the perceived brokenness of Washington, the outlandishly sinfulness of Veep seems to hold more truth.
The satirist behind Veep is Armando Iannucci, who HBO imported from Britain to replicate his success as showrunner of The Thick of It and as director of In the Loop, both of which are exceedingly watchable. Iannucci’s works profit from their heavy use of a patently British form of droll comedy, where everyone operates at varying degrees of miserable, and awkwardness breeds entertainment. Iannucci thrives on leaving characters out to struggle like a fly in a spider web.
Watching a spider eat the fly can be excruciating. Some moments of Veep are truly hard to sit through, like in “Alicia” when Meyer’s sadsack press secretary Mike begs super brat journalist Jonas not to run a story. Squirming is inevitable while watching Mike doff an imaginary cap from his knees while singing a Civil War ballad with a folksy twang to the glee of the ever-punchable Jonas.
The humor of Veep is far from all dry. At its best, the show cracks with verve. Its pistol-paced wit and cultural references will get you well acquainted with the HBOGO rewind button (or with clicking backwards on Project Free TV). Iannucci is similar to Sorkin in that both men’s characters converse in a way we outside the screen don’t. A Sorkin character speaks in saccharine soliloquies. An Iannucci character is a Picasso of the insult. The level of verbal sparring on this show would have Wilmer Valderrama fork over all the cash money (I’ll update my references soon).
Veep writers hold as much regard for political correctness as they do for politics. This approach produces such put-down gems as “You’re not even a man … you’re like an early draft of a man, where they just sketched out a giant mangled skeleton but they didn’t have time to add details, like pigment or self-respect” and “Are we seriously going to let the guy with the police-sketch face of a rapist tell us what to do?” And that’s just a smattering.
While the episode “Helsinki” from Season 2 might be Veep at its one-liner peak, “Alicia” is the episode most deserving to be parsed as a political statement. And when a comedy turns into something more, it’s best time to tune in.