Baltimore gets lots of face time in “VEEP,” the Maryland-made HBO political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
But so far, all of it has been as a stand-in for Washington, the setting of this fictional series about the vice president of the United States. Last week, the Ottobar and the New Wyman Park restaurant doubled as D.C. settings for a rock concert and a breakfast meeting between two political aides.
This week, however, in an episode titled “Baseball,” Baltimore gets to play itself in a story line that finds Vice President Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) hosting an “Eat Healthy” event at Camden Yards. In the paranoid, ever-anxious and always-status-crazed fishbowl of politics and media that Meyer calls home, being assigned to the president’s “obesity initiative” is another career slap in the face from her boss, and she is none too happy about her first event in the new role.
Beyond all the Baltimore locations, also recommending this episode is the fact that it’s directed by series creator Armando Iannucci and is steeped in the sharply-etched awkward, embarrassing and revealing comic moments that he has all but trademarked with films like “In the Loop” and TV series like “The Thick of It.” Only instead of skewering British political life, he’s now shining a light on the dysfunction of Washington – and doing it from our backyard.
For viewers, Meyer’s downbeat attitude is part of the fun of her trip to Camden Yards — that and what is going on in her personal life, which I will not spoil for viewers with any more details. But the first two-thirds of the episode is set at Camden Yards, so don’t be late when the show starts at 10 p.m. Sunday.
Other Baltimore locations are involved: the Hilton Hotel across from Camden Yards; the Mother Mary Lange School, on Frankford Avenue, where Vice President Meyer is scheduled to speak to a grade-school class, and what the Maryland Film Office says is the Charlesmead Pharmacy, on Bellona Avenue, where aides are dispatched to buy something personal for the vice president. Again, I will not divulge the purchase for fear of incurring the wrath of the Spoiler Police. (Unlike Camden Yards and the Hilton, the last two sites are “dressed” so as to not be instantly recognizable — at least, not to me.)
And a trio of local sports celebrities get cameo screen time this week as well: Orioles pitchers Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter appear in uniform along with Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who is no stranger to the camera.
From Jockey underwear ads and “The Naked Gun” to the broadcast booths of ABC Sports and MASN, Palmer has looked into the unblinking camera eye for some three decades, and come out on the other end regularly looking good. Palmer not only gets a couple of lines, he improvises one in keeping with the style and spirit of this savvy comedy.
In their scene, Arrieta, Hunter and Palmer are part of a group waiting on the field to meet Vice President Meyer. One running joke in the series is the way in which an aide is always whispering background information into her ear about people she is about to meet (sometimes even as she is shaking hands with them).
In this scene, a White House staffer is in a skybox looking down onto the field as she approaches the group — and telling her via cell phone who she is going to be shaking hands with.
“That’s Jake Arrieta. He’s a starting pitcher,” the White House staffer says. “And on his left, that’s Tommy Hunter. He’s a starting pitcher. Oh, and that’s Jim Palmer. He’s a Hall a Famer. The guy’s a legend. He’s a starting pitcher as well.”
Looking confused and irritated, Meyer hisses into her phone, “You don’t have multiple starting pitchers. There’s one mound. Do you see three mounds or one mound?”
I cannot include the expletive of an adjective she uses to describe what kind of an “idiot” she believes the White House staffer to be as she shuts off her phone and reaches out to shake Arrieta’s hand.
But if you’re not familiar with the series, you will have to trust me: The expletives, which almost always begin with the letter “F,” are a delight, a perfectly apt and delicious way to express the anxiety, insecurity, anger and frustration in this amped-up Washington world where there never seems to be time to think. In Meyer’s world, there is only time to speak or act — and then hope that the news cycle will move on so fast your mistakes won’t be fatal.
While Arrieta and Hunter mainly stand there smiling and saying “Yes, ma’am,” Palmer reaches out and says, “Madame Vice President, it’s an honor to meet you.”
“What a treat to meet …” she starts to say to Palmer, when he adds, “Welcome to Camden Yards.”
“So, Jim, you’re a Hall of Famer,” she says, trying to sound like she knows what she’s talking about.
“Well, they let me in there,” he says self-deprecatingly.
“Oh, and that is a wonderful thing to be in the Hall of Fame — for sure, for sure,” she adds trying to stretch the biographical fact whispered into her ear into something that approximates an actual conversation.
“It was fun, because I was a huge ‘Seinfeld’ fan, and Julia was such a huge part of that,” Palmer said in a telephone interview last week. “My wife and I, we watch ‘VEEP’ every week, because Julia’s terrific. I mean, the whole show is really well done. And I’m glad to see that it’s, at least I assume, it’s doing very well.”
Well enough to be renewed for another season, which is the name of the prime-time game.
Palmer said the filming of the scene started at 8 a.m. on a chilly day in November, and there were “many, many takes” before they wrapped.
“I think the end result is kind of like when you pitch and you have a nice game, and everybody forgets how much work you did to prepare yourself for doing that,” he says. “TV’s no different.”
Palmer said he was prepared for a day of many takes after working on “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Story!” in 1988 with producers David and Jerry Zucker.
“The Zucker brothers just kept doing it over and over and over, so I had an idea of how long it takes to do these things well,” Palmer said.
“My wife asked me today, ‘What exactly were your speaking lines?’” he added. “And I said, ‘Well, first, I’m old, and it was a long time ago. And number two, you never know what they cut. But I think I said, “Yeah, somehow they let me in there,” after she mentioned the Hall of Fame, and we kind of improvised that.’”
Having spent time on the Columbia soundstage with “VEEP” while it was filming last year, it is fascinating to get this glimpse inside the making of this little scene, which really is kind of a throwaway moment. In context, it plays off a much bigger moment involving a very private announcement that Meyer makes while standing in the public space of home plate at Camden Yards.
But even in the case of this little scene, with all the multiple takes that Iannucci and his team had to work with, they chose one in which Palmer improvises and he and Louis-Dreyfus speak over each others’ lines a bit.
Why? Because, as I learned on the soundstage and from interviews with Iannucci, for all his obsessive precision, he also highly values a sense of the messiness of real human interaction and conversation. Each scene in “VEEP” starts with a script, but then, improvisation is encouraged take after take until he and his team are satisfied that the dialogue feels real. And that feeling is one of the ways that viewers come to believe in the “reality” of the characters and the world of the sitcom.
The more I watch this series, the more convinced I am that Baltimore is very lucky to have it being made here. And not just because of the jobs it provides or how inviting it makes a place like Camden Yards look this week.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times