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.
This redemptive impulse is non-existent in Britain. Once a politician screws up, they’re usually gone for good. And if we don’t forgive, we don’t forget either: London and Glasgow saw massive parties when Margaret Thatcher, who had been out of office for over 20 years, died last year, with revelers holding signs reading "THE BITCH IS DEAD." I’ve only been in Washington for two years, but I’m pretty sure there were no street parties when Reagan died.
The Thick of It was relentlessly unforgiving. The series ended with redemption for none, and failure and misery for all. The show’s soul, Malcolm, is arrested, his career over; his last words are simply, “doesn’t matter,” and he’s gone. Even before the finale, characters were thrown aside without hesitation. The series begins with a minister being sacked and replaced, telling the viewer from the outset that politicians aren’t interesting or valuable, but instead can be tossed aside into unforgiving obscurity in an instant.
Selina gets at least some happy moments—including a ton of sex. Most episodes end in failure, but it’s low-stakes failure, and the consequences are never too harsh. There are moments where she comes out on top: The end of season two, when she realizes she’s running for president, is jubilant. I can’t imagine her end will be as crushing as Malcolm’s. It’s not that Veep is kind to political types; it’s that the presence of any mercy at all puts it worlds away from The Thick of It’s ruthlessness.
Veep isn’t the only British import that lost its bleak attitude. The recent reboot of House of Cards saw the same effect. The American version does portray politics as corrupt, but it’s an appealing, glamorous corruption. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in particular is more anti-hero than villain, and he’s undeniably sexy. The British version feels more like lifting a rock and watching, with grim fascination, the pale, disgusting worms writhe beneath. Ian Richardson’s performance as Francis Urquhart is both peerless and very different from Spacey’s: completely mesmerizing, yes, but thoroughly repulsive.
As James Fallows acknowledged here earlier this year, the American version “has a kind of American optimism,” whereas the British version is “even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first.” It’s a pattern we see across British and American political TV: It’s simply impossible to imagine a British version of the majestic and hopeful The West Wing, for example.