What "Veep" got right about our government

It obliterates mainstream myths by showing the government isn't full of geniuses -- and the public isn't all morons

Published June 27, 2013 4:34PM (EDT)

    (HBO/Lacey Terrell)
(HBO/Lacey Terrell)

After two full seasons of "Veep," it should be clear that Armando Ianucci's HBO satire is the most accurately scripted show ever made about American politics -- full stop. There is no need to qualify or massage that statement; it's just flat-out true, even though I'm guessing many people who work in politics despise it.

The reason that's my guess is because unlike other movies and TV shows about politics, "Veep" -- whose season finale just aired -- portrays politicians, staffers, lobbyists and reporters not as the heroic idealists and brilliant Machiavellis that politicos desperately want to see looking back at them from the mirror. Instead, "Veep" shows Washington for what it is: not merely Hollywood for trolls, but a place where painfully average and often untalented drones follow their star-fucking ambitions only to be caught in a soul-sapping system that devours whatever last remaining shreds of humanity they still possessed.

"Veep" is comedy, of course -- but it is also genuinely important television. That's a rare combination, for usually "important" shows are those that make us cry in sorrow and not in laughter. Not "Veep." You get to laugh at the insanity of how major government decisions are more often the product of "Office Space" dynamics than "Air Force One" theatrics -- and upon seeing that, you also get to weep on the inside about that painful reality. True, we may not be used to such biting commentary in the comedy space, but like "Dr. Strangelove" in the 1960s, "Veep" applies the humor of satire and caricature to deadly serious events in order to make its message more palatable -- and, arguably, more powerful.

To be sure, if all "Veep" did was mix significant meta-messages with humor, it would be a great show, but it wouldn't necessarily be on its way to the rarefied level of "The Wire," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and other programs sanctified as Important Television. What has set "Veep" on that path up Hollywood's Mount Olympus is its historical timing in the lineage of political television, and more specifically, how its emergence reflects a growing maturity among a mass audience finally starting to acknowledge the crisis of American democracy.

Roughly speaking, there have been three distinct eras in the last 20 years of politically themed pop culture. The first began in the 1990s and included documentaries like "The War Room" and films like "The American President" and "Dave." It ultimately culminated in Aaron Sorkin's hit show "The West Wing." These are entertainment products that basically portrayed politics as a competition of ideas between principled idealists. Dishonesty, avarice, deception: If these traits existed at all in this world, they were either ascribed to cartoonish bad guys or, if shown among good guys, depicted as unfortunately necessary means to ultimately honorable ends.

No doubt, this entertainment era appealed to the audience because it legitimized hope in what for many felt like a hopeless time. The Clinton administration was deregulating Wall Street and jamming NAFTA down the throat of the working class -- all while Republicans were shutting the government down and impeaching the president over blow jobs. Then 9/11 happened and President Bush and Darth Cheney used the attack to wage a war on behalf of their oil buddies. In that depressing abyss, "The West Wing" was a televisual palliative encouraging us to remain hopeful that in some corners of politics, principles and ideals were still important -- if not now, then soon in the future.

The problem with this entertainment genus was not that it was overly optimistic, idealistic and unrealistic in giving us a supposedly utopian version of what government could be. On the contrary, the problem is that the vision was presented as utopian even though it isn't. It's fundamentally flawed, and even a bit scary.

Watch the scene in "Dave" when the impostor president cuts the budget, or watch most of the policy decisions on "The West Wing." Notice anything missing? Yes, that's right; for the most part, the public simply isn't there. By that I mean, there may be occasional references to polls about public opinion, but decisions affecting millions of people are happening in a complete vacuum with almost no input from or regard for anyone other than those elites who happen to be shuffling in and out of the Oval Office.

This, of course, is cast as a good thing. It is policymaking as a virtuous technocratic debate over ideas in the hermetically sealed White House -- a high-minded discourse that prevents the distorting influence of interest groups, corrupt lobbyists or the larger throng. But that's neither a vaguely realistic portrayal of how politics works nor what we should even hope for in a democratic society. Indeed, though public involvement in decision-making comes with its obvious downsides and allows for abuses by those with lots of money, it is still better than the opposite. Why? Because for every enlightened sovereign like Jed Bartlet, whose isolation from public forces results in humane policy decisions, there are far more George W. Bushes and Barack Obamas in the real world who, when similarly isolated from or hostile to the public, end up acting in far more destructive ways.

America knows that's true (beyond the obvious consequences of real world events) thanks, in part, to the darker themes that ultimately supplanted the first era of political entertainment. This second modern era has been defined by films like "Ides of March," "Thank You for Smoking," and "State of Play," all of whose zeitgeist can be seen in ABC's "Scandal" and, in its purest form, in Netflix's "House of Cards." In this world, if principled idealists like Jed Bartlet exist, they have no power at all and are to be laughed at -- or trampled. The real decision-makers are people who have absolutely no moral compass, ethical grounding or specific policy aspirations whatsoever. It is a world where everyone with any power is Darth Cheney.

This world is a more realistic representation of how politics works in that political actors acknowledge the public does actually exist -- and, like in the real world of politics, those actors see the public existing solely for the purpose of being manipulated rather than being represented.

No doubt, "House of Cards" and its cousins are loved by the professional political class because they play to that class's vanity. Sure, those entertainment products portray politicos as the 21st century epitome of the phrase "banality of evil." But they also depict those professional politicians, operatives, lobbyists and media courtiers as incredibly smart and savvy, and those qualities, as NYU's Jay Rosen notes, are the most revered among professional political elites.

But, however entertaining this savvy world is, its assumption about savviness is the portrayal's ultimate shortcoming. That's because while the political/media class loves to imagine itself as a club of sophisticated 15-dimensional chess players, and while watching such fictional chess players in "House of Cards" is extraordinarily entertaining for an audience, that's not the way politics works. At all.

If you've worked in Washington or on a campaign, you know that lots of people are certainly scheming and plotting, but that because so many people and layers are involved, such schemes and plots are almost never executed -- and when they are, they are almost never as successful as Hollywood pretends. Part of that is because almost nobody who works in politics -- or perhaps in any industry -- is even half as smart as, say, Frances Underwood. But the other part is that even if Frances Underwood was a real congressman, the complexity of the political system -- with its departments and agencies and gossipy staffers and congressional receptions and lobbying networks -- make it nearly impossible to successfully execute those political triple-bank-shots that TV suggests he's pulling off all the time.

This gets us to the third era of political entertainment as epitomized by "Veep" and its earlier iterations, "In the Loop" and "The Thick of It."

In this world, politicians, staffers, reporters and other political players are actually human beings; that is, they aren't purely principled Jed Bartlets or completely self-absorbed Frances Underwoods. Instead, like most people in Washington, they are a mix of both. Unlike the cartoons from earlier eras, they are also human in wholly unexceptional and apolitical ways: sometimes a bit jealous, other times a little kind, other times irritable, but always just authentically human. Indeed, the characters' identity struggles between all of these political and apolitical qualities is part of "Veep's" comedic fun.

Likewise, in this world, the public is a full-scale character, not just because Vice President Selina Meyer is often out and about with the masses, and not just because staffers are often focused on manipulating voter opinion, but also because we see that "the public" is really no different from the elites.

This latter quality in particular is what makes "Veep" rise to the level of Important Television. Whereas so much of the past's political entertainment presents an intellectual divide between Voters and Politicos -- the former portrayed as a faceless throng of idiots, the latter portrayed as distinct individuals of super-human intellect/cunning -- "Veep's" reliance on run-of-the-mill not-so-super human characters astutely rejects the Great Man Theory of political history embraced by the two earlier eras of political entertainment.

Instead, "Veep" points out that intellectually, morally and ethically, there is often little distinction between those who are governed and those doing the governing. It does this by refusing to depict the government as some super-sophisticated Google campus teeming with geniuses. No, in "Veep's" more true-to-life portrayal, government is shown to be a public sector Initech, which itself is a reflection of all the mediocrity and small-mindedness of day-to-day life in America. That correctly implies that there are plenty of "regular people" (including absolute idiots) in politics; that in a sense we do have a government "of the people"; and that this "of the people" quality (far more than brilliantly constructed conspiracies by supposed political geniuses) explains a lot of why government is so dysfunctional.

Thus, in using a show about Washington to show that government is us -- warts and all -- "Veep" is not just a show about politics. It is actually a stealthily biting commentary about the nation and American culture as a whole. Sure, the program may never show us the president, but that's not important because it shows us something far more significant: ourselves.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

MORE FROM David Sirota