Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My vote on VEEP

Imagine an episode of WEST WING, with rat-a-tat, wall-to-wall dialogue but funny.  Well, keep imaging because VEEP isn’t that.  It wants to be.  And oh Lord does it try.  But what you’re left with in this new HBO entry is an exhausting half hour that manages to waste the talents of one of TV’s best comediennes, Julia Louise-Dreyfus.
    
Good luck following the story.  Or caring.   She’s championing cornstarch silverware or something and coming up against the big bad plastics lobby?  There’s something called the Clean Jobs Commission that’s she for because it’s good for her.   Why, I don’t know.  She calls someone a retard in a speech and is surprised it causes a shitstorm because she said it as a joke?   Meanwhile, we never know her politics.  Is she a Democrat or Republican?   Isn’t that sort of important when defining a character who is the Vice-President of the United States? 
 
So here’s what we do know – she’s ambitious, she’s kind of ditzy, she can deliver lines as well as anyone ever could because she’s the wondrous Julia Louise-Dreyfus.  She surrounds herself with a WEST WING-like support staff (more wasted talent in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’S Tony Hale and yummy Anna Chlumsky) who are relegated to toadies.
 
There are some real lessons in comedy here.  One: Pace needs to be varied.  Yes, it can be zippy but the audience needs to breathe.  When the pace is relentless, things don’t land.  And eventually the audience gives up.   Laughs come from reactions, from little behavior.  Take the time. 
 
Comedy is specific.  If you’re going to do a political satire you have to declare your position.   I know the danger, that you may alienate the Blue States or the Red States, but so what?  You’re a show about politics.  Take a stand!  Being edgy and fearless doesn’t only mean your characters get to say fuck.
 

And that’s another thing.  Fuck is not an all-purpose, universal-go-to punch line. Half of the laughs on VEEP depended on someone saying fuck.  “Are you fucking kidding me?”  “She’s a fucking bitch!” This is lazy writing.  Give us smart, sophisticated jokes.  Anyone can write "She's a fucking bitch!"  The shock value of hearing the Vice President of the United States say fuck lasts all of maybe two minutes.

Comedy is characters.  Audiences get drawn in because they care about the people.  Especially in a pilot, devote the time to letting us know who they are and what their relationships are.  Does Julia’s support staff like her, admire her, thinks she’s a nightmare, what?   Instead of all this talk about plastic forks, let’s learn who these people are. 
 
And finally, don’t try so hard.  The desperation to entertain is palpable.   Have faith that your characters are compelling enough, your story engrossing enough, and your jokes are funny enough that you don’t have to create an artificial razzle-dazzle to hold our interest.  
 
What’s most disappointing is that I was so looking forward to this show.  The trailer was intriguing.  I love the arena.  The cast is awesome.  And it's a comedy geared for grown-ups.  Please live up to your campaign promises. 

37 comments:

Barry "ImperialCreed" White said...

Hi Ken,

Can't say I agree with your assessment, but I'm curious to know if you've seen any of The Thick Of It and if so what you thought of it? That's one of Armando Ianucci's previous shows, of which Veep is very much in the same vein.

Sérgio said...

Ken, you wrote: "I know the danger, that you may alienate the Blue States or the Red States, but so what? You’re a show about politics. Take a stand!"
- In the best political comedy that I've ever seen (Yes Minister + Yes Prime Minister) they never revealed if Jim Hacker was a Conservative (Tories) or from the Labour-party, and the humor worked perfectly. Maybe it isn't necessary in this comedy to reveal if they´re Republicans or Democrats.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I was also looking forward to watching this on DVR last night. I'm a fan of Frank Rich who is one of the executive producers. i fell asleep about seven minutes into it. Literally. It wasn't out of boredom, but the relentless dialogue. The non-stop high speed yammering lulled me to dreamland. It genuinely became white noise to me.

I'd love to see how many pages the final script had.

MikeBo said...

We lasted about 12 minutes before we looked at each other and uttered "change the channel," simultaneously. Then we found a re-run of "30 Rock," and settled in for some good laughs.

a said...

Ken, you of all people should not judge a show based on the pilot.

normadesmond said...

guess i won't be liking it.

David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews said...

Just wanted to note that, there actually were some pretty damn funny episodes of "The West Wing". Maybe not an entire episode, but there were a few that were about 80% comedy. The "Celestial Navigation" episode" comes to mind. The show was already pretty funny. Oh, and "Parks and Recreation," does a fabulous job of taking characters who are government official and making us laugh, and yes, we always know exactly what each character's political views are on that show.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

Friday Question: Do networks mandate directors use certain exact specifications like lighting or colors in pilots for brand consistency?

I've noticed a lot of shows on NBC -- Bent, BFF & Up All Night come to mind -- all "look" very similar visually. The problem is the shows then kinda feel the same and lose some uniqueness. They look too generic "NBC".

Thanks for the wonderful blog.

-Andrew

Thomas said...

Sounds like a worse version of The Thick Of It.

Pete Grossman said...

Hoping the show can work. Granted it was frenetic - seemed like a half hour of stage fright that's hopefully out of their system.

Rory W. said...

Hi Ken,

I know it's your blog and your opinion, but here's another perspective from "inside the beltway:"

"Veep gets Washington right in the same way Scrubs got medical professionals right: It doesn't really, but then again, it really does.

As much as we all loved The West Wing, it did perpetuate a forgivable but outrageous fantasy: It presented most people working in politics as good human beings. In Veep, everybody (bureaucrats, journalists, influence-peddlers, taxpayers) is vulgar, vain, power-hungry, clumsy, petty, self-interested, self-loathing, and painfully oblivious to life outside the Beltway swamp.

Veep has a very simple take on our public servants: Practically all of them are douchey incompetents."

http://motherjones.com/mixed-media/2012/04/tv-review-veep-hbo-julia-louis-dreyfus

Scott H said...

Ken, I have to partly disagree with you on this one. Her party is insignificant. This is about creatures of Washington, DC--self-preservation and power are their main concern, not politics. Her political positions don't matter at all.

Although I did find the show somewhat amusing and entertaining, I would agree with you that the pace could be varied a little, and we should learn more about the characters. But I think the goal here was to treat the audience like grown-ups, and just plunge them right into the heart of things. Your concerns seem to fall into the broadcast network "spell it all out for them" vein. I'm content to let the show develop over time.

Mark S said...

I have to agree with Scott. The party is irrelevant. The only belief the VP has is wanting to hold onto the little bit of power she has. I wasn't a huge fan of the pilot, but it was interesting enough that I'll continue watching.

Anonymous said...

While I think your comment about pacing was correct, I think some of your other criticisms really miss the mark about what this show is trying to accomplish. I can admit that I didn't love the first episode, which I feel mostly stems from trying to figure out who these characters are and the previously mentioned pacing problem.
The writer intentionally leaves the party affiliation out of the show because the show isn't about the politics of ideals but more about the more mundane aspects of middle management and washington "inisdery-ness". I think its the same kind of choice as not naming which state Springfield is in "The Simpsons" or not fully seeing George Steinbrenner on "Seinfeld". Also if you don't think that cursing can be hilarious on its own you really need to check out the series a previous poster mentioned "The Thick of It" and/or "In the Loop".

a name said...

What I didn't like about it was that much of the "comedy" was just people being in an uncomfortable situation, like the veep being ignored by the senator.

SOMETIMES this is funny, but not constantly.

Dawson said...

Ken, couldn't agree more. My wife said that it was like "The Office" crossed with a road-company production of "The West Wing," and she is no fan of "The Office."

We turned the pilot off with about six minutes to go. It was torture to watch.

Steve Mc said...

Iannucci, on form, is a comic genius and a great political satirist - not just for The Thick Of It but I also have fond memories of The Friday Night Armistice. I haven't seen Veep - but going by the sense of disappointment, is it the case that he and his co-writers are British and don't know the US political scene as well as they know the British political scene? Or is it that they just don't, can't, have the same fire in their belly they have when skewering the UK political establishment they live under?

Anna Liza said...

Sorry to hear this, as In the Loop is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. It's on a short list of films that made me laugh out loud almost continuously for 30+ minutes (along with A Town Called Panic and Noises Off). I do think the viewing experience really helped with that, though. The first time, I saw it in a packed theater with a warm crowd that laughed so loud and so long that some of the dialogue was drowned out. The second time I saw it with my husband, who sat there with pinched lips the whole time and finally said, "it depresses me when nobody has any redeeming qualities." HUGE difference.

I'm not surprised that the pace is a problem, though. A Town Called Panic and In the Loop both have a machine-gun pace that had the crowds I was in rolling for about 3/4 of the runtime - like nothing I've ever seen - and then it just tapered off to almost nothing. Turns out it's exhausting to laugh for that long! I have to think that's more problematic for TV, where the audience is probably in quite a different mood than when they're taking a trip to the movie theater.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I think Joe Biden can tell you that people will be shocked by a VP dropping the F-bomb for more than two minutes. The shockage is due to last at least until noon the following Sunday.

media_lush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
media_lush said...

My personal jury's out as I've yet to see it [I'm in the UK] but The Hollywood Reporter and Gawker critics absolutely love it.

I agree with the other posters that not knowing the party works fine, if not better. You're forced to focus on just the politicking rather than the ideology, which would probably distract.

Ianucci's close to a genius IMO, not just for The Thick of It but more so for the brilliant Alan Partridge Show where he was co-writer.

gottacook said...

With respect to "The shock value of hearing the Vice President of the United States say fuck":

One of the few admirable things the Washington Post has done in the past 10 years (which largely overlaps the post-Katharine Graham era) was to run Vice President Cheney's "fuck" quote verbatim, intact, no asterisks, in its news story about the incident in 2004.

Of course, that was during the previous editorial regime, when there was still some honor remaining. See "Post Editor Explains Decision to Publish Expletive" (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5109-2004Jun25.html).

Emily Blake said...

Had a completely opposite reaction. I laughed through the whole thing. I love the people around her, even rewound a scene to watch it again because I laughed so hard.

tb said...

"The desperation to entertain is palpable"
I feel this way about a LOT of shows!

Bradley said...

Wow, I'm surprised by your vehement disdain for the show. My reaction was the complete opposite. I haven't laughed so hard at a pilot in years. I think knowing her political party would destroy the show, as its point of view seems to be that the VP is a figure head that doesn't have any power, so what the hell does it matter what she stands for?

I agree that the F bomb was thrown around far too much, but that's always a criticism of mine. However, when JLD is the one throwing it around, I'm able to laugh a little bit more than I normally would. She's remarkable in everything, but as I watched the pilot I though I just might be watching her best character yet.

Of course it's too early to tell, but I thought it was extremely solid and can't wait to tune in next week. Thankfully with HBO, I know when and where to find it.

Victor said...

Disagree, I loved it. Agree that, as others have said, what party she stands for is not relevent to what they're trying to do.

As for comedy lessons, I think it's fair to say creator Armando Iannucci generally knows what he's doing, his track record stacks up against anyones.

This was episode one, let's see how it goes; but I imagine the pace won't let up, if that is one thing that currently irks.

DwWashburn said...

I didn't find the dialouge any more "rapid fire" than 30 Rock.

And you couldn't tell what political party she was? When was the last time you ever saw a Republican care one bit about the environment?

Smart dialouge doesn't say " Well here we are in 1964" but "Did you see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show last night?". Her political party was there. They just didn't look into the camera and tell the audience.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Anna Chlumsky used to date my cousin's closest friend. We all went to the movies together once before.

As for the show, I'll have to check it out.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I kinda think the JLD character has a bit of "the new Elaine" on Seinfeld...by the last few seasons on the show she became bitchier and bitchier, far from her sweet personality in the early seasons. I kinda see her in that same kind of bitchy character on Veep. Not very likeable...kinda the way Elaine ended up on Seinfeld. Am I sorta out in left field about my observation of her character on Veep? Anyone agree? I just loved the way JLD played the early Elaine - so very likeable, affable...I cannot see her in a stronger role. Go back and watch her do her thing on the first three seasons of Seinfeld. That was genius.

A show with a lot of banter between characters works - again, if you CARE about the characters. But VEEP so far ain't no SPORTS NIGHT. That was a great character show with brilliant dialogue...and nobody had to say fuck on it and it got good laughs. But it never got the chance even though it was great going out of the gate right at the start. Now that show should be on HBO instead of Veep. Just my thoughts on brilliant comedy half hour shows. I "got" Sports Night...I don't entirely get Veep. Yet.

404 said...

off-topic, but was wondering if you had a chance to read this:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/24/john-ratzenberger-cheers-reunion_n_1449600.html

Matt said...

Ianucci lazy? Seems doubtful Mr. Levine.

cb said...

And note to both Veep and Girls:

Learn where to put the camera. Please.

Jeremy said...

Hey Ken,

I'm not sure if you caught the Daily Show episode that Julia appeared on, but she mentioned that they are never going to reveal what her party affiliation is or who the president is. I can see both sides of the argument, but I agree with you that taking a stand and risking the alienation of some is better than trolling around in mediocrity and unable to explore real issues.

Anonymous said...

Really liked Ianucci's "In The Thick of It," but that show gets its juice from a very British "quiet desperation is the English way" thing that didn't seem like it was translating right in the pilot of "Veep."

The earlier show benefited from the classic drama requirements of Pity and Fear. Somehow it got you emotionally on board with the aspirations of a miserably mediocre politician like Chris Langham's MP, Hugh Abbott, or the sad-sack resignation of his burnout assistant. It was like a horror movie of interpersonal abuse. as Aristotle sez, you had to watch Abbott (and his successors) risk real disaster and punishment out of proportion to his petty failings. (The Fear came from Malcolm, the Enforcer.)

But maybe the Veep writers like Jesse Armstrong -- who has done such genius work with pathetic characters on his Peep Show -- are planning on some comeuppances big enough to create some real desperation, working in HBO Time where stories like Boardwalk Empire aren't required to become interesting right away.

Victor Vacendak said...

Really liked Ianucci's "In The Thick of It," but that show gets its juice from a very British "quiet desperation is the English way" thing that didn't seem like it was translating right in the pilot of "Veep."

The earlier show benefited from the classic drama requirements of Pity and Fear. Somehow it got you emotionally on board with the aspirations of a miserably mediocre politician like Chris Langham's MP, Hugh Abbott, or the sad-sack resignation of his burnout assistant. It was like a horror movie of interpersonal abuse. as Aristotle sez, you had to watch Abbott (and his successors) risk real disaster and punishment out of proportion to his petty failings. (The Fear came from Malcolm, the Enforcer.)

But maybe the Veep writers like Jesse Armstrong -- who has done such genius work with pathetic characters on his Peep Show -- are planning on some comeuppances big enough to create some real desperation, working in HBO Time where stories like Boardwalk Empire aren't required to become interesting right away.

D. McEwan said...

"Meanwhile, we never know her politics. Is she a Democrat or Republican? Isn’t that sort of important when defining a character who is the Vice-President of the United States?"

When I saw her on TV last week, bragging that you'd never know which party her character was in, I knew this would be too balless to watch. One shouldn't brag about what are actually defects, especially when the defect is due to cowardice.

Maybe a lot of conservatives hated West Wing, which was pretty much a liberal's wet dream of a fantasy presidency to counter the daily horror that was the Bush Administration (For an hour each week, we could pretend that we still lived in an America that didn't shame us), but they evened out the playing field some by not making the conservatives into paper foes, but portraying their side reasonably, which is more than real conservatives do, and giving their sides of the issues without weighting it against them.

That the appeal of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has always been lost on me doesn't help it for me.

Anonymous said...

I think you might have slightly missed the point when saying "if you're going to do a political satire you've got to declare your position".

The position of the writers and the show - and this was true of The Thick Of It, as well - is that regardless of the ideology that politicians and their cronies say they subscribe to, they're all incompetent, self-serving and fundamentally unlikeable. It may not be be true in the real world (although I'd wager it is for 90% of the time) but that's the position they've taken