I've always liked following politics and, while I no longer care about politics as much as I once did and certainly don't invest it with any transcendent significance, I still probably care more about politics than the typical citizen and still probably pay more attention to it than most ordinary folks. So it was almost inevitable that at some point I would want to watch Veep, the new series on HBO set int he office of a fictional Vice President of the United States, former U.S. Senator Selina Meyer. The series premiered in late April, and I now faithfully record each Sunday evening's sorry episode. And, because I do like the human story of politics, I admit I enjoy the program - up to a point.
Inevitably, Veep invites comparison with the Clinton-era series West Wing, which starred Martin Sheen as an admirable, if flawed, President. West Wing was as much about the president's staff as about the president, if not more so; and I always thought there was some artificiality in isolating that slice of the Washington political scene. Still, it was a good series. Its first season - when the characters still seemed to have real personal lives - was probably the best. Veep's creators might or might not appreciate the comparison with West Wing. There really is very little comparison in terms of quality. Or, rather, Veep is to West Wing as the Vice Presidency is to the Presidency. And we all remember what John Adams, the first occupant of the office, rightly said about the Vice Presidency, that it was "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." Given the limitations inherent in the Vice Presidential office itself, perhaps it is only to be expected that a TV drama about it (however entertaining) must be disappointing in substance.
That said, still the series disappoints at a deeper level. For one thing, the characters are not just flawed (as all people are) and not just excessively, even narcissistically ambitious (as politicians are prone to be), they are downright dumb - so apparently incompetent and so self-preoccupied that it is hard to see how they even got as far as they did. Admittedly, good looks and an attractive personality may count disproportionately more than either intelligence or principle in electoral politics. Still, most people who advance as far as the characters portrayed in the program generally have more to recommend them. Ironically, the one person who best fits the stereotype of the good-looking, cunningly ambitious aide is also the one who comes across as the most highly competent staff member in the Vice Presidential office - Dan Egan, the Vice President's Deputy Director of Communications (played by actor Reid Scott).
They are also vulgar - to the point of absurdity. Again, thanks to the widespread coarsening of our culture in general (and Cable TV in particular), we have all gotten used to characters who seem unable to utter a sentence without one widely overused vulgar word. Admittedly, too, prominent people do talk that way sometimes - although typically in private. Still, there is something very demeaning to the characters and disappointing about the roles they represent to hear the Vice President of the united States, U.S. Senators, and political staffers all sounding like adolescents and obviously unable to converse any other way!
Entertaining and funny up to a point, the program sadly reinforces a narrative about politics and politicians which is all too prevalent in a society which has always been ambivalent about both politics and politicians. When we think of our office-holders and those they rely upon as at best, vulgar, venal ,and self-serving and at worst unintelligent and incompetent, it reinforces and encourages a pseudo-populist mentality about politics and politicians - a mentality which also conveniently ignores the voter's ultimate responsibility for rewarding such behavior. The results of such a mentality - the results of its prevalence in our society today - are on display in the corrosively destructive non-politics promoted, for example, by such phenomena as the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement.