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?

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.

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.

At this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus starred in a prerecorded skit as Selina Meyer, but this time her co-stars were real-life politicians. Joe Biden rolls up in a yellow Corvette, with aviators and a leather jacket. John Boehner answers Selina’s phone call: “Hey girl!” It made them look cool, personable, human—and took them behind the curtain, onto her side of the satiric stage. Compare this coziness to the show’s British creator, Armando Iannucci, who once said he felt “queasy and uneasy” at The Thick of It merely being admired by then-Leader of the Opposition David Cameron.

Veep is missing the anger it needs to be a truly great satire, like The Thick of It was. The actors are just as brilliant and the creative swearing doesn’t disappoint, but it feels a little empty. It treats politics as ridiculous, not outrageous. Perhaps that’s because the writers are British, so they don’t have the same personal stake. But any Brit who was politically aware during the run-up to the Iraq war will tell you that American political sin incites plenty of anger in Britain; these are the consequences of America being the global superpower. There’s no shortage of issues to be angry about, or of Malcolm Tucker-level creeps in DC, so why be so polite about it? Channel your rage, America: It makes for a bloody good show.