What 'Veep' Gets Wrong (and Right)

This article is from the archive of our partner .

It's weird that the emerging consensus on HBO's Veep is that it's unenjoyable because it's not realistic, and it's not realistic because it's too cynical, given that the meme for the last two or 20 years has been that Washington is broken.

The show, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an unprincipled and powerless vice president was endorsed as quite accurate by Jeff Nussbaum, who served as a speech writer for two vice presidents. Nussbaum told GQ's Reid Cherlin that Veep hits the mark with its wall-to-wall cussing (including "pencil fucking"), the portrayal of patronizing presidential staff, the terrible advice offered by civilians, the codependency of some aides, and even the sets. And yet, it is wrong, all wrong—at least according to political reporters.

"If the aim of this show is to get viewers to disrespect everybody in elected office, mission accomplished," The Daily Beast's Eleanor Clift writes. On Slate's Political Gabfest, David Plotz said, "The West Wing was inaccurate in that it left out all the incompetence, hilarity, vanity, self-obsession, narcissism of American politics, and this show left out all the idealism and attempt to accomplish things in American politics... But as it happens, this is a moment when there isn't a lot being accomplished in American politics, so maybe it rings more true." Plotz's colleague, John Dickerson, reported that, no, it's worse: "A show that's so soaked in cynicism about politics as a work of art smacks as lazy." The Salt Lake Tribune's Scott D. Pierce complains:

[Show creator Armando] Iannucci said he wanted to strike a balance between portraying D.C. as 'very noble' and portraying it as 'a very cynical, corrupt, rather sinister world. I actually believe the truth is somewhere in between.' Well, the show settles in decidedly closer to the cynical side... [One scene] plays as mildly amusing and really mean-spirited. That’s Veep in a nutshell.

The West Wing's idealism was more accurate than Veep's cynicism, Macleans' Jaime Weinman says, because "if you look at political gridlock today, and the causes of it, you’ll often find that it’s caused by an increase in idealism, and more idealistic people working in government. In the U.S., there’s a lot of hand-wringing about gridlock and the inability of government to get anything done, but the reason for that is that ideology is more important than it ever was before."

Recommended Reading

Maybe it depends on how you define "before." The idea that "Washington is broken" is certainly repeated endlessly these days. Take, for example, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake explaining why Sen. Rob Portman's support among political insiders makes him a bad choice for vice-president. "People really, really dislike politicians," they write. "They hate Washington. They think politics is broken — maybe irreparably." Maybe irreparably? Americans sound primed for a cynical show! In fact, they've been primed for several years:

  • "Why Washington is broken?" was the headline for a story by Politico's Mike Allen on January 26, 2010 -- before the 2010 midterms gave Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives, giving them even more power to block President Obama's agenda.
  • "Washington, right now, is broken," Vice President Joe Biden told CBS News February 17, 2010, saying it was worse than it had ever been.  Biden served 30 years in the Senate -- including during Watergate.
  • "Washington is broken," presidential candidate Mitt Romney agreed -- on August 11, 2007.
  • "Washington is broken," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry complained April 9, 2006.
  • "These contradictory, contending forces -- the sense that America works and Washington is broken -- battled to a draw, with the race for the White House splitting the country almost exactly in half around the central question: Change direction or stay the course?" the Los Angeles Times' Ronald Brownstein wrote on December 17, 2000.
  • "Likewise, in announcing his retirement last month, Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey denounced politics in Washington as 'broken,'" the Christian Science Monitor reported September 11, 1995.
  • "The system in Washington is broken. The Congress is in gridlock," Vermont Secretary of State James Douglas said on September 7, 1992, the Associated Press reported.

So there you have it: Washington has been broken now more than ever for two whole decades. Surely we're ready for a cynical show by now. 

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