Veep really shouldn’t have worked. The idea that a group of British writers, led by Armando Iannucci, would take the style they’d developed on The Thick of It to a US sitcom set in the vice-president’s office looked crazy. Or at best, what another political comedy would have called “courageous”.
But it worked. It won plaudits. It won Emmys. In fact, it proved more popular in America than here, even though the serrated style and cynical characters of Veep seem resoundingly un-American, and all the better for it.
The show’s heroes are the aides and underlings of Selina Meyer, a female vice-president who chafes against the pointlessness of her role. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina (brilliantly) as a sort of porcelain monster: part spoilt child, part world-class charmer, with a repertoire of insincere smiles.
She can be touchingly kind, but when a rage takes her (generally because yet another political manoeuvre has spectacularly backfired), the bully in Selina bursts through the chic exterior to vaporise anyone in sight.
It’s in these acid moments that Veep is at its best. Everyone abuses everyone else, and like Malcolm Tucker’s sweary outbursts, Veep’s rapid-fire putdowns have become an art form. One politico stands up to Selina’s PA with: “Sue, don’t talk to me that way. You’re the secretary to the vice-president. That’s like being Garfunkel’s roadie.” A numbers wonk is “the Pol Pot of pie charts”.
The unique hit Veep offers is this classy (and usually filthy) vitriol. It gives us top-class sniping and political pratfalls at the pace of a 1930s screwball comedy. Plus the satisfaction that, yes, a bunch of limeys can mock America’s politics and get away with it.