Vice President Selina Meyer is rattled.
The president never calls. The tabloids are trying to whip up a feud with the first lady. Selina is on the list of next year’s hurricane names. And she has bungled another negotiation.
“I need you all to make me not have said that,” she tells her staff. “I need you to make me unsaid it.”
“Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new half-hour HBO comedy, shadows a vice president who just happens to be an attractive, ambitious brunette who says regrettable things. It’s a dark political satire that manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. And it has nothing to do with Sarah Palin.
“Veep” pokes at the Palin issue in the first two minutes as Selina wonders aloud whether to wear glasses to a party. “No,” she says, “glasses make me look weak. It’s like a wheelchair for the eyes.”
At the event, as her aide Gary (Tony Hale of “Arrested Development”) alerts her to a VIP legislator “at 2 o’clock!” she hisses back, “I’m not a sniper.”
Viewers looking for Jimmy Stewart-style inspirational story lines in which values triumph in the end should look elsewhere. The death of a notoriously lecherous senator shapes the events of the first episodes.
“When a sexual harasser dies, we sign his wife’s card, OK?” White House liaison Jonah (Timothy C. Simons) lectures the vice president’s staff. “That’s how Washington works.”
As a gangly sycophant who chronicles every hallway nod he gets from the president, Simons stands out even in a superb ensemble cast. Maybe it helps that he’s almost 7 feet tall.
People are frantic and desperate in this D.C., and thanks to its pace and some “Bourne Identity”-lite camerawork, “Veep” feels a bit frantic itself. The 30-minute shows are dense with bitter banter, ill-conceived tweets and compromised BlackBerrys. C-SPAN could take a lesson in pacing from HBO.
Selina doesn’t exactly wield Dick Cheney-esque power. After Jonah eviscerates the pages of a fundraising speech like a censor in “Catch-22,” she snaps, “What’s left here? I’ve got ‘hello’ and I’ve got prepositions.”
Winging it, it turns out, is not Selina’s strong point. She could make Dan Quayle cringe. As a result, her chief of staff, Amy (Anna Chlumsky), is constantly putting out fires, but she and everyone else in Selina’s inner circle drop the ball, too.
Selina hires Dan (Reid Scott of the underrated “My Boys”) because she needs his cutthroat skills, but he also happens to be Amy’s ex, and their repartee stings. After he helpfully forges a signature, Selina asks Dan, “Is there anything you can’t do?” Amy jumps in and answers for him: “Foreplay and direct sunlight.”
Part of me hopes the shady, salty antics of “Veep” are grounded in reality. Then again, I hope that Joe Biden’s aides do not whip out the whiteboard to break down flavor options for a photo op at a frozen yogurt shop, as Selina’s team does (Jamaican rum is funky, unexpected and sexual; mint would be traditional and refreshing).
“Veep” will never show the president, creator Armando Iannucci has said, nor will it ever say which party is running the current administration, which is just as well — cat-herding and hair-pulling have stripped these players of everyday ideology.
Mike (Matt Walsh), the communications director, has created a fictional dog to get out of working late. Jonah uses his White House credentials like a backstage pass to sleeping with women he refers to by numbers only. As far as unabashedly terrible people go, most of the “Veep” squad falls somewhere between the depraved “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” crew and the merely jaded “Seinfeld” quartet.
There are a few hints of Elaine Benes and even Old Christine in Selina. Louis-Dreyfus doing her flustered routine and losing it is good stuff, and “Veep” isn’t missing any chance to humiliate a public figure, even if she is fictional.
The writers of “Veep” aren’t letting pay channel status go to waste, either. This is a version of Washington where George Carlin would fit right in. And it’s easy to pack a lot of truly creative cussing into a few minutes when the show lets its characters talk over one another, trail off and interrupt — when they’re not busy trading insults.
“Veep” essentially is a workplace comedy about little getting done in the midst of cartoonish dysfunction. As such it takes a page from “The Office” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” These characters would have been too dismal to watch if they weren’t so funny, but they wouldn’t have been so funny if they weren’t stuffed with truth. And that’s depressing.