Review: 'VEEP' shines a hilarious light on often dim-witted world of politics

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"VEEP" is the kind of series that separates HBO from almost every other channel or network making television these days.

It takes great risks, dares to break new ground, includes some of the most imaginative artists working in the arts and aims for nothing less than absolute cultural relevance.

Oh, yeah: It is also very, very funny in its snarky, off-beat, highly profane, single-camera way. That sensibility might take a little getting used to for some viewers. But give it a chance, and you will come to love the way it's used here to illuminate the darkness at the heart of our partisan-crazed, gridlocked and bleak national political life.

The series, made in Maryland, stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, a one-time fast-track senator now trying to find her footing as vice president of the United States. The creator is Armando Iannucci, a Scottish satirist whose Oscar-nominated sendup of British politics, "In the Loop," is considered a sacred text among young political workers on both sides of the Atlantic. They have laughed themselves silly watching it over and over and over.

After writing a set-visit, Sunday-magazine profile, several production stories and endless blog posts the last several months as the series was filming in and around Baltimore, I should probably be feeling burned out on "VEEP."

But I'm not. On the second and third viewings, I am still excited by the performance of Louis-Dreyfus, who walks an absolute tightrope in terms of tone and consistently nails comedic nuances that most TV actors never get within shouting distance of.

Iannucci focuses his comedic attention on the lack of vision and sweaty-palmed fear that grips our political leaders, and as I watched, I realized that for the first time in months, I wasn't feeling quite so desperate, angry and depressed about the state of government and civic life of the nation.

As manic as the pilot can be, with Meyer and her staff careening from crisis to crisis, screw-up to screw-up, I felt myself not only smiling but finding some peace and pleasure in the knowledge that someone as savvy as Iannucci was on the case of Washington's dysfunction.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Frank Rich, the writer for New York magazine who serves as one of the series' executive producers, described the show's approach to the misery and madness that is government today.

"Rather than writing like a pundit and lecturing or hectoring about it, 'VEEP' turns it into farce, which is what it is," he said.

"And so, for a half-hour, people who are seething at the mere mention of the word 'Washington' can laugh their heads off — before they go back to seething."

As part of his research into the American political process, Iannucci told The Sun, he met with workers from the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and United Nations.

"The more you know, the more you realize it's far worse and far more stupid than you could ever make up," he said. "And if you made up some of those situations people would accuse you of being too far-fetched."

Don't go looking for Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama here. Viewers never see the president in the three episodes made available for screening — nor is the party to which Meyer belongs ever revealed.

"It's set in the office of the vice president, but using the conflicting dynamics in that office," Iannucci said. "The fact that she's so near power, and yet so removed from power, but yet could be in total power. It's that 'so near and yet so far.'"

Even though they are always stressed out and often as angry and four-letter-focused as comedian Lewis Black at the height of an in-concert rant, these characters are not silly.

"They're just people," Iannucci said. "But why is it that the process has turned into something where whatever you do, it just comes out the wrong way? It looks bad. And then, you start with the fear of looking bad, so you're trying to cover up."

None of the supporting players hits the high notes of a Iannucci score more adroitly than Anna Chlumsky ("In the Loop"), who is marvelous as Vice President Meyer's beleaguered chief of staff.

The entire ensemble is A-list. Tony Hale ("Arrested Development") has moments as Meyer's "body man," or personal assistant, that are sublime.

There will be extra treats for Baltimore-area viewers during the first season. One episode, which features Vice President Meyer hosting a "Get Healthy" conference (think Michelle Obama), is set at Camden Yards. Meyer's co-host is former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, according to Iannucci. Meyer also hosts a "police breakfast" at the Belvedere Hotel.

The Ottobar, Tremont Grand and Greater Baltimore Medical Center turn up as settings during Season One as well.

In the end, "VEEP" will probably rise or fall at the hands of the Nielsen gods, based on viewer reactions to Louis-Dreyfus. Having an on-screen identity as memorable as the one she helped create for her character of Elaine on "Seinfeld" is a tricky business. Some people fall so deeply in love with such a character that they never want to see the actor in anything else.

I don't think "VEEP is going to be a mainstream hit in the ratings. Let's be frank: It's probably too smart for that. I expect its first-play audience will be more in the range of "Girls," another outstanding series from HBO that debuted last Sunday to 1.1 million viewers.

Let's be glad that the folks at HBO have found a business model that allows for high-end, intelligent series like "VEEP" and "Girls" to populate its prime time instead of the brain-dead double-entendre that passes for comedy on network TV.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

'VEEP'

"VEEP" premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

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