'Veep' and the Five Types of Fictional Female Vice Presidents

With her new HBO series, can Julia Louis-Dreyfus become a vice president who's not The Lunatic, The Sell Out, The Reluctant President, The Unwise Wise Counsel, or The Martyr?

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Veep debuts on HBO this Sunday and, unless the entire enterprise implodes during the title sequence, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Selina Meyer, will present viewers with the most well-rounded fictional female vice president in memory. Which is worth something, because the lady vice presidents, while not as common as smart-aleck deputy chiefs of staff or press secretaries who are all bravado, is an oft-used stock character when movies, books, and TV turn their gaze to Washington.

Unfortunately, they haven't come off very well. In fact, every female vice president falls fits neatly into one of five basic character types:

The Martyr

Rod Lurie's 2000 thriller The Contender is arguably the Citizen Kane of female vice president movies. The cast is top-notch--Jeff Bridges makes a fine shark sandwich-munching president, Joan Allen is good as a moderate senator from Ohio named Laine Hanson, and Gary Oldman chews the Capitol rotunda as Rep. Shelly Runyon, Hanson's folksy House-side nemesis--but the movie makes no sense and it's all the Hanson character's fault. Her confirmation is jeopardized when it emerges she may have been a participant in a public sex show while at Yale. She wasn't -- that's the movie's second big third-act reversal, in addition to the revelation Oldman a lightweight southern governor played by William Peterson masterminded the car accident that killed the first vice president (it's kind of a silly movie). So why didn't she just say that to begin with? Well, Lurie wanted to make a very year 2000 point about the Starr Report (wasteful) and the tone in Washington at the turn of the century (not nice), but it's tough to embrace a protagonist who endangers the health of a presidency to make a point about Decorum. The movie's view of politicians is not charitable --Oldman, the Chairman of the Appropriations committee, Peterson, the smiling southern governor murdered the vice president! (in our defense it involves lots of cars and misdirection about who is doing things and what they hope to gain by them.)  Still, Laine's good fight -- good as it is -- is also kind of crazy and selfish. What kind of wife, daughter and politico would let people go around saying she participated in an orgy while Skull & Bones types watched when in fact she she did not? That's just silly. People are going to say awful and scurrilous things about those in power in Washington anyway: not usually this graphic, but that's how it goes. But elected officials -- visitors to a real city with real natives who look our for their own,  tend to view D.C. as an unholy swamp from May through late-September and a spectacularly inefficient company town year-round. There's some degree of truth in that, but one simple rule remains: if you can opt-out of a brewing, do it quickly. There are enough real ones to go around, and your reputation will be that of a fighter, or possibly just a dependable salt-of-the-earth type. (Depends how much temptation you turned your back on and told everyone about later.) Laine's problem was that she'd rather teach everyone a valuable but complicated point about ethics than deny a slander against her name. Important, but you can't imagine Jeff bridges letting her on ticket, even if he would serve another terms, after burning through his coalition to defend his new vice president right not to talk about provocative and unbecoming public sex she never even had. In her own way, she's crazier and less willing to compromise than Rumson, though she doesn't have Gary Oldman's vaguely American accent, sprinkling of old-age-makeup, and three piece suits that fit fine when he's alone and bunch up in the presence of other. She's just Joan Allen: competent and decisive, in warm browns and faintly preppy Carolina blue blouses. If we like her -- and we do, because she's not Gary Oldman-ning all over Foggy Bottom and eating shark sandwiches like the commander-in-chief. She seems like one of the normal ones, not just passing through. D.C. tribes in established established places like Georgetown and Kalorama will identify her earlier as one of their own, which will be echoed in the slightly-less-established but still quite established neighborhoods of AU Park, Cleveland Park, and Old Town Alexandria where Laine will inevitably find herself socializing on her terms if she so chooses. With the truth on her side, with the cultural of a town that wants to support someone like Laine Hanson -- not because of politics, this is just a place where nobody likes to see anyone getting railroaded -- the smart lady's non-answers feel like a mean-spirited ruse when she reveals to Brooks that nothing happened. She could have said that, it would have been the truth, and it would have spared her family and D.C. friends from having to wonder about an incident decades ago that she refuses to discuss, and what could have prompted her to keep her silence in front of Congress. (Movie ethics.)

The Reluctant President

That silly person briefly became president on Lurie's short-lived ABC drama Commander in Chief. Renamed Mackenzie Allen and now played by Geena Davis, the first female veep becomes the first female president midway through the pilot when the sitting president has a stroke. The show lasted for just 18 episodes, but will  always serve as a reminder of what Chekov said about vice president characters: mention one in the first act, they are president in the third.

The Unwise Wise Counsel

Air Force One came out back in the 1997, when Hollywood still made summer blockbusters for adults. Harrison Ford played James Marshall, a handsome president from Michigan (a good state for pretend presidents, because it's in the midwest but doesn't require a regional accent) who has to kick a bunch of vaguely Eastern European neo-nationalist terrorists (led by Gary Oldman, again—what's with that guy?) off his plane. On the ground, Marshall's vice president Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) talks periodically to Ford like the cop in Die Hard. Her first task is to secure the release of an imprisoned general, which she fails at, because the Russian Premier isn't sure Harrison Ford is still alive. (Even if this were true, that would make Close the president, so he should be aiming to please her no matter what, but this is the kind of diplomatic small ball fictional female vice presidents don't get to engage in.) After failing with the Russians, she has to ward off a situation room coup led by Dean Stockwell's Secretary of Defense. He almost goads her into signing an executive order declaring that Ford is dead following a crash, which would make her president. She doesn't do it, is proven right, and tears up the order at the end of the movie, having narrowly missed being the first vice president to summon the leader of the free world back from the dead, at least according to Pentagon bookkeepers.

The Lunatic

Nicolle Wallace, Sarah Palin's minder-turned-critic during the 2008 campaign, wrote a fun Washington novel called It's Classified about a very female White House -- the president is a lady, the secretary of defense is a lady -- that comes close to unravelling when the vice president -- also a lady -- starts to lose her mind. Investigations and skullduggery ensues. It's a fun book, but you wish the lady veep didn't have to ruin it for the rest of the women in power.

The Sell-Out

Similar to the lunatic, but with a more calculated brand of villainy. Best seen on Prison Break in the form of former Vice President Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig) who helps set-up a patsy to take the fall for the murder of her brother, because she works for a shadowy cabal called The Company that wants to take control of multinational companies and also do something bad to an energy bill. It's unclear what she was like in office -- maybe lovely and strong and inventive -- but her post West Wing activities of participating in the murder of her brother and setting someone up for it tarnish any legacy she built up.

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