Hail to the 'Veep'

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Here's some good, surprising news for you: Something genuinely great is happening in Washington. Well, OK, technically it's happening in Baltimore, but it's Baltimore pretending to be Washington. You see, British political comedy writer Armando Iannucci has created a show called Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and it is LOL funny. I know the promos haven't been that enticing, but the three episodes I've seen are as delightfully clever and madcap as, yes I'm gonna say it, Arrested Development.

Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a former tenacious senator turned frustrated vice president to an unseen POTUS. She and her bumbling but ultimately vaguely competent staff (among them Arrested's Tony Hale, UCB's Matt Walsh, and Vada Sultenfuss herself, Anna Chlumsky) spend their days trying to, well, merely get through the day without political catastrophe. Selina has a "clean jobs" bill and a filibuster reform thing that she's trying to get through congress, and so we watch her make tenuous, awkward deals with senators and gladhand with lobbyists with smarmy smiles. The show has a breakneck, almost exhaustingly frantic pace that would probably be jangling and unpleasant if there weren't so many terrific one-liners and gorgeous strands of profanity amidst all the frenzy. The show is verbally dexterous in dizzyingly satisfying fashion, a flurry of words ably kept up in the air by actors with uncanny senses of timing.

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Top praise must of course go to Louis-Dreyfus, who has finally found another outlet for her thorny acidity that got such a grand workout on Seinfeld. Sure there was a little prickle in The New Adventures of Old Christine, but that was much more of a family show. On Veep, which is safely ensconced on HBO (where it premieres this Sunday at 10pm), Louis-Dreyfus can let her exasperated anger go at full bore. Like Elaine Benes, Louis-Dreyfus' Selina is a chillingly funny depiction of a narcissist in full bloom — a series of scenes in which the president might be dying and Selina can barely contain her "I'm the boss now" glee are tart/sad works of comic art. It's a dream role for Louis-Dreyfus and I hope she gets to do it for a good long while.

Her supporting cast is near uniformly terrific, with Hale as a dopey "body man" at the head of the pack alongside a lacerating Kate Burton as a hard-charging senator who locks horns with Selina. Chlumsky, while mostly on point, occasionally lists a little too far into smug territory, but the action moves fast enough that she's never allowed to get all the way there. Largely the cast works in perfect complementary harmony — it's hard to tell if these characters love their jobs or hate them, if they care for each other or despise one another, but they clearly thrive on and need the energy that their proximity creates. Their dynamic is an expertly elevated version of a real-life work environment, reminiscent of early Office days.

There was some concern that Iannucci's particular rhythms and profane patois might not work well when translated into American, but with a few exceptions (someone says they're "keen on" something in a way that an American likely wouldn't) the show seems as believably American as pointless, frustrating political bureaucracy itself. Which isn't to say that the show is innately cynical about politics — Selina is competent and trying to do some measure of genuine good. Rather the show understands the myriad small absurdities involved in getting something big and unabsurd accomplished. It's a show that could be about almost any kind of work, the high-stakes political setting just gives it some extra pop.

We're bullish on Veep, sharp mix of silly and smart that it is. While oftentimes HBO comedies can be laden with dramatic elements that dilute the humor, Veep is firmly and ebulliently a straight-up riot. You don't have to be a Beltway wonk to laugh at the show, though I'm sure some of those folks will be cringing in guilty recognition come Sunday.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.