The Common Problems of VPs and Prime Ministers

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s new HBO comedy Veep premiered last night.  I’ve been waiting for this since the first time I heard about it sometime last year.  But now that it’s come (and Episode 1 has gone), the question is: do I have anything unique to say about it?

Maybe.

But first, let me say what I’m sure many others have already stated today:

  • I like Ms. Louis-Dreyfus very much and usually like anything she does (including Watching Ellie);
  • I enjoyed the show and the supporting cast;
  • It’s great fun to hear her swear like she’s in a Kevin Smith movie.  (One has to assume that she relishes this as well.  Way back in Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Season 1 episode The Shrimp Incident, she sat with Larry David and mused wishfully over the profanity potential of an HBO show.)

Like I said, you could read these pleased-but-typical comments like those above anywhere.  But where, I ask, can you see a comparison of this breezy Sunday night comedy and 2011’s Oscar-winning The Iron Lady?  (Well, I’m hoping only here.)

During my recent hiatus from blogging (spurred on mostly, I admit, by the fact that I was really, really, tired), I went on quite a movie spree.  I watched DVDs; I went to the theater; I have any number of half-written (or at least half-contemplated) blogs about them.  For the second year in a row, I was able to see nearly all of the major 2012 Oscar contenders.  One of these was The Iron Lady.  And it was good.

After it ended, though, my wife and I concurred that we know nothing whatsoever about English politics (including America’s role in English politics).  While some background would have been helpful, the film moved us on an emotional level because of its portrayal of more common themes.  Generally, family life.  A little less generally, married life.  Specifically, the attempt of one spouse to cope with his or her own life once the other is gone.  It is a deal that we all accept (consciously or not) when we marry: that you will build a life together and, at some point, one of you will outlast the other and somebody will be left alone.  Margaret Thatcher was one of the most powerful people on the planet.  And in her last years she had issues with failing health, her family, and her end – and not necessarily the better end – of that bargain.  Just like most of us.

Selina Meyer, the main character of Veep, is also troubled by issues common to us all.  Yes, the running joke seems to be that she is a particularly powerless powerful person, but she is still the (fictional) Vice-President of the United States.  Even so, her office, and she in particular, is subject to the incompetency and nonsense that plagues your workplace and mine.  A “Making-Of” feature claims that the physical set of the show is a faithful replica of the VP’s chambers.  I’ll have to take their word for it.  But in real life, is there really such comic drama over greeting cards and coffee makers in Washington D.C.?  You know what?  I bet there is.

I can’t imagine that those involved with either of these projects were particularly threatened by the production of the other (although it is amusing to picture Julia Louis-Dreyfus in pre-production of Veep colorfully cursing Meryl Streep’s Oscar campaign), but even on the surface, there is a big similarity: both contain main characters who are female politicians and who have attained positions at the summit (or near summit) of their governments.

The common ground on which both projects succeed, however, is not that; it is their universality: the sense that its powerful characters experience many of the same issues that we commoners do; it is the ability of each to touch its audience with situations – loss or humor (or, in at least one case, both) – that they can relate to, regardless of whether that audience knows anything about the Falklands War or what Joe Biden’s office looks like.

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