American Political Satire: Wimpy

Veep mocks and House of Cards villainizes—but next to their truly cynical UK counterparts, they almost seem saccharine. What does that say about the States?
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Veep’s third season ended Sunday with—spoiler!—a crushing defeat to Vice President Selina Meyer in the primaries, though there’s a twist. The current president resigns and she’s elevated to commander-in-chief, a designation she’ll probably lose pretty quickly; I doubt the show will be renamed Prez.

Things often go badly for Selina—she has a high “day-to-fuck-up ratio.” From pig roasts to pint pulling, the show excels at placing her in ridiculous crises. But those crises are almost too ridiculous, and Selina remains, despite it all, kind of lovable. Which is a shame. I’m hopeful that Season Four could see Selina get into some more meaningful trouble—and America get the satire it deserves.

Veep is the American heir to The Thick of It, which aired 23 episodes on the BBC between 2005 and 2012. It isn’t a direct spin-off, but both come from the genius Armando Iannucci, with mostly the same writing team, and have a similar premise: a satire following an incompetent, ambitious political figure and their similarly venal, bungling staff. Yet The Thick of It was a much bleaker show, with no optimism and no happy endings. Veep is lighter, poking fun at American politics’ absurdities. And it has no Malcolm Tucker, the “Iago with a Blackberry,” who brought a mix of satanic darkness and grotesque, evocative swearing to every scene of his in The Thick of It.

So what changed when the same writers turned their attention to American politics? Why did their British satire bite so hard, when the American Veep prefers to nibble at the edges? As a Brit who’s lived in DC for two years, it seems to me that American political culture doesn’t encourage the contempt for its leaders that British political culture expects as standard. Without that contempt, the satire is lacking.  

In last year’s Ipsos MORI British trust-in-professions survey, politicians came last, with 18 percent saying they trusted politicians to tell the truth. By contrast, last year Gallup found 46 percent of Americans trusted politicians, down from a high of 66 percent in 2008. Maybe part of this resentment for politicians is a recent phenomenon, as Brits emerge from centuries as a class-based society. But it goes deeper than that. Shakespeare knew when he wrote Richard II that the English monarchy was a “hollow crown,” dependent on the tolerance of its subjects. Any deference Brits hold to authority is merely in the interests of stability, because we do like a quiet life. Walter Bagehot, author of the definitive The English Constitution, wrote that the “natural impulse of the English people is to resist authority.”

That’s part of why British political discourse makes American politics look like tea at the cricket club. When Congressman Joe Wilson yelled, “you lie!” at President Obama, it was a national incident, but raucous shouting at the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s Questions has been a weekly institution since the 19th Century. We throw eggs at our politicians; we nick their bikes; we certainly don’t stand when they enter the room.

This jeering hatred of politicians is integral to The Thick of It. Malcolm calls minister Nicola Murray a “psycho-fanny,” and violent threats that he’ll “sell off [her] fucking flayed skin” are standard. And these politicians are worthy of hatred. Nicola is a total “omnishambles;” her predecessor Hugh uses the story of his adviser Glen’s special-needs son to lie to Parliament. The advisers are as terrible. Malcolm is the “Malchiavellian” scumbag behind it all, but every single one is slimy, backstabbing, and horrible. Ollie is a “man worm,” who helps depose both Nicola and Malcolm. Others trade nicknames for a mentally ill man: “The fucker’s a nutbag.”

The characters in Veep are pretty awful, but they’re not so unequivocally loathsome. There are moments of joy and warmth; there’s even a romantic spark between Dan and Amy. And whether or not the writers did this intentionally, there are moments that soften Selina. She feels remorse for causing a soldier to lose his leg. Her pregnancy and miscarriage cause genuine, deserved sympathy. As always, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is charming and likable—we root for a woman who would be the most disastrous president in American history. Is that how satire should leave us feeling?

It’s not only hatred, though—Brits don’t have the forgiving impulse that America has for its politicians. The fall-and-redemption story is familiar in American politics. Last year, we got a Congressman Mark Sanford as proof. George W. Bush’s paintings of dogs hang on the national refrigerator, with him trotting them out in a fluffy Today Show interview with his daughter.

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Libby Watson is a researcher for Media Matters for America, originally from Banbury, England. 

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