A couple of weeks ago HBO’s VEEP concluded its 4th season. This marks the end of showrunner and creator Armando Iannucci’s phenomenal work on the series as season 5 will see the show enter a period of new leadership. This also marks the conclusion to a 10 year cycle of Iannucci’s in the realm of televised political comedy. Iannucci first entered this domain in 2005 with The Thick of It, a political comedy show that revolved around a minister in the fictional British cabinet position of Secretary for Social Affairs. The show proved popular, lasting for 3 seasons and 2 specials from 2007-2009 when it spun off into a feature film called In the Loop.
In the Loop marked the first shift over from Iannucci towards American politics in addition to the previous British focusing, revolving around the misadventures of Simon Foster, secretary for international development, who is caught up in pre-war fervor surrounding the launch of the Iraq War. After a fourth season of The Thick of It co-produced through Hulu Iannucci made the full transition to American politics with HBO’s VEEP in 2012. With VEEP’s conclusion now seems like a good time to examine Iannucci’s ultimate commentary on American politics compared to England.
In case you’ve never seen the shows but are progressing with this article for my lovely prose firstly, thank you, but secondly you should know none of these comedies is actually about the strict policy of politics. By this I mean that Iannucci has a strong tendency to avoid details and specifics when it comes to crafting the political landscape he sets his story in, settling for broad strokes that often parallel real life to a worrying degree. We’ll usually get a vague name of some piece of legislation or a newly enacted policy but the show never bogs down in the specifics the initiative, much like how no one’s political party is every actually identified. There are vague indications of which side of the political divide people hail from, usually owing to the stereotypes and socio-economic realities surrounding various political affiliations. This has the effect of keeping the show’s focus on the characters and their struggles of governance and self-advancement, that’s where a lot of the central commentary arises. This forces the show into the position of what is essentially an office comedy that just happens to exist within the confines of political space.
This particular genre mash-up affords the various shows and movies of this ten-year cycle a unique form of commentary grounded strictly in their stylistic approach. Iannucci’s work has the effect of tearing down the artificial dome of secrecy formed around the workings of government that affords it a sense of vogue and prestige. In comparison to shows like The West Wing or House of Cards The Thick of It and VEEP portray politicians as selfish, inept, contemptuous, bumbling or all four. This is a criticism held across the entire spectrum of Iannucci’s cycle, the idea that central workings of government are, essentially, no more glamorous or dramatic than any given office farce. Where things start to deviate is in how the various shows and films relate to their respective politicians.
In both The Thick of It and In The Loop there’s an undercurrent of sympathy to be found for the various cabinet ministers that drift through Iannucci’s lens. From initial minister Hugh Abbot’s exhaustive struggle to keep his job to follow up minister Nicola Murray’s floundering attempts to enact real social change and political moment through positivity, all the way up to Simon Foster, lead character of In The Loop being portrayed as a hapless pawn in the schemes of larger forces, all these characters convey an odd sense of tragedy about their respective place within both the political machine and the ethos of western politics overall. More often then not these characters end up broken under the wheel of political mandate with their own goals swept away by the writ of party politics. The point of all this is about stripping away the trappings of power from some of the most powerful people in the government and enforcing why it seems change is never actually allowed to occur; because the people in control of our lives are too busy scuttling about trying to avoid bumbling their day-to-day that no one has the strength to be a normal person and enact real change.
This is where VEEP enters the equations as its depiction of politicians skews in a much harsher direction. This is best illustrated in series lead Selina Meyer, erstwhile vice president, candidate, and eventual surrogate president during season 4. The difference between how Iannucci views American and English politics as well as levels of political discourse is perfectly summed up in the way VEEP regards Selina; as a selfish monster that can actually get things done. Throughout the show it’s constantly made clear that Selina’s self-obsession borders on the egomaniacal but also that her massively overinflated narcissism and aggressive self-advancement are what make her a meaningful force in politics. A quintessential rule of sitcoms is to include a character that represents the unfettered id, someone who can indulge in the selfish or cruel actions we, the audience, sublimate on a daily basis. In the case of VEEP that person is Selina Meyer, the most politically powerful person on the show. What’s more the emphasis of the series always brings during moments where she accomplishes actual political change is that it always comes at a high cost someone else must pay for her egoism. In the end it creates a pitch-black image of top tier politics in America that’s only softened by the kind of harsh absurdity that only exists in real life. The ultimate and horrifying truth at the core of VEEP is that there is an inevitable amount of individuals who will have their lives pretty much stepped on to appeal the highest echelons of the political spectrum and that’s the price we have to pay for any kind of actual change. This latest season actually pushes the idea even further with the charming, charismatic and actually caring political hero Tom James. James is the kind of idealized political myth everyone would love to see in the Whitehouse and VEEP’s ultimate commentary on him is that in today’s gridlocked political climate someone like that can only get to be president by accident.
What’s impressive about all of Iannucci’s work is that despite the incredibly cynical outlook that is so intrinsic to the material none of his work ever exudes a sense of pessimism. The greater atmosphere of the shows and films is a sense of inevitably and resignation to the point of genuine release. A big part of this is the emphasis on an actual lack of continuity throughout Iannucci’s television work. Even though the various politicians and their staff fall into innumerable scandals and public embarrassments those events never really come back to bite them in any sense. In fact it’s quite the opposite, with major character resignations or shifts in government leading to changes in the details while the same problems still persist. It all adds up a very central truth that runs through the entirety of Iannucci’s work; that the world of politics isn’t turned into an infuriating, gridlocked, image-driven factory that struggles to enact change because of any one person, party, power level, or even country of origin. What makes government that it’s a system of expecting perfection from humans. That’s the underlying truth Iannucci conveys through his work formed into its purest nature as a cosmic joke, a twist on expectations of epic proportions.