Brow Beat

Biden’s Gaffe Highlights What’s Missing from Veep

Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep (HBO)

I am enjoying Veep—Armando Ianucci’s HBO sitcom about a fictional vice president—so far. It’s full of talented comic performers, most notably Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the titular vice president, Selina Meyer, a lightweight bumbler whose days (to judge from the show’s first three episodes) mostly involve choosing which frozen yogurt flavor will send the right message to whomever might possibly be paying attention. There’s also a “Clean Jobs Commission” she’s putting together, which has something to do with creating new jobs that are good for the environment, I guess? The nature of the commission is not entirely clear—apart, of course, from its total and utter pointlessness.

Which gets to what’s missing from the show: any sense whatsoever that politics matters at all. “I didn’t want this to be about a type of political view, the state of Democrats and Republicans,” Iannucci recently told Talking Points Memo. According to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “you’ll never know what political party Selina is in.”

I would argue that we already basically know that Selina is a Democrat, given her apparent concern for the environment. In addition to putting together that Clean Jobs Commission, Meyer expresses her hopes that all federal buildings will start using corn starch utensils instead of plastic ones. Environmentalism hasn’t always been a strictly Democratic affair, but these days, at the presidential level, it pretty much is.

And that illustrates the problem: You can’t really get into politics without addressing “a type of political view,” to borrow Ianucci’s phrase. Instead, Veep focuses on the bureaucratic idiocies inherent in the work of a large institution of any kind—which can be funny, to be sure, but which lack the stakes involved in political work.

That fact was brought home yesterday when President Obama expressed his support for gay marriage on the heels of an apparent gaffe from Vice President Biden. Meyer shares Biden’s penchant for mis-speaking, but her comments have not thus far had any real consequences. Granted, Biden’s bumbles don’t usually generate landmark historical moments, but they do often matter, in ways large and small.

Some might argue that if the show engaged at all with actual partisan politics it would somehow become un-funny. But there’s a show on the air that disproves that very point: Parks and Recreation. As Juliet Lapidos outlined in Slate last year, the show revolves around an obvious liberal (Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope) and a proud libertarian (Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson), and, amid the swirl of pratfalls and chicanery, actually depicts their very different approaches to local government.

This season, Knope is running for city council. Her opponent’s father is the CEO of the town’s largest employer, a candy company called Sweetums. In a recent episode, that opponent, Bobby Newport, declared during a debate that if Knope won, his father might have to move the company to Mexico. In response, Knope makes an argument for why civic engagement in politics is important. “Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs,” she says. “That power belongs to the people.”

Knope isn’t only an idealist; the show makes clear that vanity and a love of control also figure into Knope’s political ambitions. But those aren’t the only reasons she’s in politics. And that seems to me a more realistic take on most of the people who do get into politics. It’s also more than one can say, so far, about Selina Meyer.