Julia Louis-Dreyfus exudes thwarted ambition in Veep

Acerbic British writers have created a kind of foul-mouthed anti-West Wing in heels

Oaths of office

HBO Canada

The set of Veep, a new HBO show starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an American vice-president, is housed in a nondescript warehouse near Baltimore, next door to a mattress distribution depot. Inside are painstaking recreations of the inner sanctums of Washington power: from the mouldings along the coffered ceilings to the precise level of clutter on the desks. Writers and actors were dispatched to probe every aspect of the Beltway ecosystem, from the drinking and sleeping habits of young staffers, to the nuances of how profanity is used (enthusiastically at the Pentagon, it turns out; at the State Department, not so much), to the exact level of sweetness senatorial schedulers use when they end phone calls (zero).

But this is no retread of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s long-running drama series that used lavish realism as a backdrop for noble public servants struggling to do the right thing under difficult circumstances.

Creator Armando Iannucci is the irreverent Scottish comedy writer and producer behind the award-winning British TV political satire The Thick of It and the film In the Loop, which lampooned U.K.-U.S. relations in the run-up to the Iraq War. He is best known for using creative cursing as a writing device and single sentences crammed with a record-breaking number of words that start with “f.” In Veep, he and his team of acerbic British writers have created a kind of foul-mouthed anti-West Wing in heels that revels in public cynicism. “The West Wing was a show about how we hope politics works,” says executive producer Christopher Godsick. “And this show is the way politics probably works.”

Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, an ambitious and well-meaning former senator who finds herself in the exalted role of vice-president, whose only constitutional duties are to break tie votes in the Senate and wait for her boss to keel over. She is surrounded by aides and flunkies of varying degrees of loyalty, ambition, and competence. “It’s the most powerful powerless job in the world—or the most powerless powerful job, depending on the moment of the day,” says Louis-Dreyfus, who sits wrapped in a robe after a day of shooting a scene in which she discovers her press secretary, Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh), has misplaced his cellphone. Selina also spends a lot of time waiting for a call from the president that never comes. (The audience never sees the president, nor learns what political party he belongs to.) In one episode, she is told the president is experiencing chest pain. Her face breaks out in a high-speed chase of emotions: from obligatory horror to barely concealed delight. “The most exciting 15 minutes of her life,” quips Simon Blackwell, a writer and co-executive producer. “You are one fishbone away from being the most powerful person in the world.”

Iannucci, a political junkie who stayed up to watch U.S. election returns as a kid in Scotland, didn’t want to glamorize or condemn Washington politicians. “I haven’t seen a fictional representation of Washington, of White House or Capitol Hill politics, that hasn’t either been dramatic, virtuous and noble, or conspiratorial and murky and evil,” he says. “I haven’t seen the actual day-to-day running of Washington. This is what it’s like on a daily basis.” Apparently, it’s painful. “Senator Doyle just arrived,” Selina’s no-nonsense scheduler, Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw), announces at one point. “And he has a face like he’s been stabbed in the groin.”

Research trips included a tour of the White House with Obama’s then-body man, Reggie Love, as well as interviews with staffers for senators such as Joe Lieberman, Barbara Boxer, and the current vice-president, Joe Biden. The Brits were amazed to discover a Washington full of “small offices meant for one person, but two people crammed in, the chair doesn’t quite match the desk, it’s grubby and messy and people are just trying to do their jobs and get through their job without getting fired or screwing up,” says Blackwell.

And this is where Veep finds the comedy—peeling back the curtain to spotlight the dysfunction within. “The bigger the facade and more pompous the surroundings, the funnier the little failings are, just people being mammals,” says Blackwell, the writer.

After watching Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann take recent swings at the “ultimate glass ceiling,” it’s hard not to rue the fact that Veep is not a drama with an inspiring, uplifting, history-quoting, female version of West Wing president Josiah Bartlet. But, at the very least, Selina is not made in the Ally McBeal/Liz Lemon mould of smart women with a big job who nonetheless wring laughs out of their inability to keep a boyfriend. In this show, gender is not the gag. “The frustration is where the humour comes from,” says Tony Roche, a writer and co-executive producer.

The character is not goofy. “We don’t want her to seem stupid. We want you to believe that she was a successful senator.” He adds: “One thing Julia does well is angry. If they’ve let her down, she’s good at tearing them a new a–hole. She’s good at that energy.”

Selina’s own aspirations are also continuously cut down to size by obstacles big and small. On one occasion, she prepares to give a speech only to be told by her press secretary that she she’s been “pencil-f–ked—backwards and forwards, without romance.” The actors picked up the expression during their D.C. research. “If someone takes your speech, crosses out most of it, and tells you to start over, you’ve been pencil-f–ked,” says Timothy Simons, who plays Jonah Ryan, a White House liaison who brings tidings of the president’s latest whim from the West Wing.

Nor will there be Elaine-style dancing from Seinfeld. “The idea is to try and keep things small, performance-wise, so it has a reality feeling to it, so that as a viewer you feel you are almost watching something you are not meant to be watching,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “That’s a different kind of acting, and I love it.” The hand-held camera work adds to that fly-on-the-wall feel. The actors rehearse and add improvisation, creating lines that get incorporated into the script.

Iannucci chose to make his character a woman in part to make it clear he was not parodying Biden. And because, as he says, “I like the funny ladies.” The part was written for Louis-Dreyfus, who emphasizes she’s not out to make any statement about women and politics. “I don’t think of it as playing a female politician, nor do I think of myself as a female driver when I’m driving,” she says. “I think of it as playing a politician and I am a female.” Asked whether she received advice from former vice-presidents, she is discreet. “I’ve spoken to a few.”

Of course, the creation of a powerful female politician is a fraught exercise. The show’s costume designer, Ernesto Martinez, worked with Louis-Dreyfus to come up with a style for Selina. “Julia really did not want to look like Sarah Palin or any other candidate or senator. She thought they looked too dowdy. She did not want to look that way. She wanted to look like Michelle Obama,” says Martinez. They avoided Clinton’s pantsuits, Palin’s bright colors, and Nancy Pelosi’s chunky jewellery, opting for tailored suits in muted shades from designers like Christian Dior, Prada and Escada.

In some ways, the show may be perfectly timed. The air in Washington today is thick with thwarted aspirations. Just ask the Democrats who swept both branches of Congress in 2008 only to be tripped up by Senate filibusters; or the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010 who thought they were arriving to balance the budget; or President Barack Obama himself, whose signature health care bill will live or die in the hands of a single swing-vote Supreme Court judge. With its divisions of power, backroom deals, and 11th-hour manoeuvrings, D.C. is like some kind of fantastically geared machine designed by Dr. Seuss. Perhaps Veep is the right show for the hangover that followed the political euphoria of 2008 in which the President enjoys the approval of barely half the country, and only a fraction of those approve of Congress.

The actors already sound jaded. “Before, I truly looked at politicians as people who were working to make the country better. Now I see that is total bullshit,” says Simons. “The system that is set up is going to corrupt you somehow.”

But will the show make people even more cynical? “I think we are as cynical as we can get—so I think it will provide a voice for what people are feeling,” says Godsick, the executive producer. Perhaps it had to be a comedy. Laughter is cathartic, after all.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.