Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My response to your respone on VEEP

Some great non-partisan debate on today’s post. Thanks so much for all the comments. Let me respond to your responses.

I still believe it’s necessary to reveal which side of the aisle the Veep is on, not so much because I want the show to be about issues but because it really helps us define her character. Republicans and Democrats have very different worldviews. And you could say, yes, but they’re all just people and in other areas they’re all the same, which is true. But this is a series set in the arena of POLITICS. And in that arena the participants take a stand.

As someone points out, she is for the environment, which suggests Democrat.  And that's great.  But if so, why be on the fence? 

Readers have noted that VEEP creator, Armando Iannucci’s British work – IN THE LOOP and THICK OF IT – also skirt party affiliation and are hilarious. I have no doubt that they are. But I think the dynamics of U.S. politics are different. At least today, this sorry moment. The utter hatred between the two sides and the unwillingness to compromise even for the good of them all is sadly now what defines our elected officials. How can you do a show about politics and ignore that elephant/donkey in the room?

And here’s the thing – it doesn’t preclude them from doing anything they’re currently doing. It just adds to it. And if they want to go to town and show that each party is the devil’s marching band I say have at it! They don’t have to take a stand. The characters do.

Plus, it's so much easier to do a show when you can go after something instead of avoiding something. 

Yes, I know politics and religion are hot box topics. But how many Tonys do you think BOOK OF PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN GOD would have won?


Tom said...

Ken, Frank Rich, ex of NYT, is a huge Lib. Sorkin is too. Matthew Weiner, check. So are you. Who cares? I couldn't disagree with you more politically or socially but your work in comedy and baseball rocks.

Jeff P said...

I enjoy the cast and the pace of the show....and the content.
I just wonder if they can give me engaging plots every week, so I want to come back.
---Jeff Prescott

Laurent said...

I think the extreme hatred in US politics is exactly why the show shouldn't pick a side, at least not now. Once a writer puts his characters in one of those two boxes, people expect them to behave exactly like the typical Republican or Democratic stereotypes. The writer(s) would thus be forced to include the irrational battle of those two parties into their scripts instead on making a more general comment about politics and using the lack of power of a Vice President as comedic resource.

Staying neutral will be difficult and create some problems in possible later seasons, but for now it gives the viewer a chance to really focus on the characters instead of basing their opinion on which polital party they like most.

By the way, I like the pilot. The constant swearing is annoying (as a European I don't really understand all the hype about the "F-bomb") and the story arcs are a bit too predictable, but the acting is outstanding, most of the jokes work and the characters have potential.

Harry the Bastard said...

Sorry Ken, but on this occasion you're entirely wrong. Picking a side would be utterly predictable, 'fraid you're playing it as safe as I'd expect an American writer to play it. This is probably why something like Yes Minister could only be British show. Till now. You guys play it safe, leave the genius to us old chap. We'll see how this plays out.

Jim said...

In my eyes Armando Iannucci can get away with anything after carrying out one of the best practical jokes I have ever seen back in the mid nineties. He hired a group of young teenage girls from a stage school, got a few T-shirts and scarves printed up and went to Downing Street, official home of the British Prime Minister as the leader of the Jeremy Hanley fanclub. At the time Jeremy Hanley was a pretty minor member of the cabinet (not that he ever advanced any further) and a name only really familiar to those beyond the political geek circle due to the occasional gaffe. Not the sort you'd expect to have a fan club, let alone one of teenage girls. Yet after Iannucci and his gang had been standing outside Downing Street for a few minutes, a message was passed to Mr Hanley and he came outside to give a few minutes to his young supporters. No need to wonder how he got the reputation for being gaffe prone. Just try to imagine the same scene being played out at the gates of the White House for, say, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

You can watch the whole scene (some three minutes or so) here

Johnny Walker said...

Got to say that I'm on the apolitical side, too.

On a completely unrelated topic, I remember Ken posting about bad dialogue, citing a particular line that belonged to Colonel Potter regarding "the proverbial feline".

I've just found my way into the final season of Frasier, and I found an example of the same thing: A character's idiosyncratic way of talking turned up to 11. Easily the most awkward lines I've ever heard on Frasier, both from the same character, Lilith:

Answering machine: "Hello, it's Lilith. We're supposed to be having breakfast. You're not here. And as I don't know if you're tardy or have been in a terrible accident, I'm unable to commit to an appropriate emotional response."

Yeuch! Makes me nauseous just reading it.

This is probably the worst, though...

Lilith meets Niles and Daphne and sees that Daphne is pregnant: "Daphne, Niles, congratulations on the successful commingling of your genetic material."

Not even Lilith should talk like that.

Mike said...

OK. Not seen Veep but it appears to be a direct translation of the TV series "The Thick Of It". (The film "In The Loop" was weaker.) As such, it may not translate.

You've got to forget about The West Wing. This was never, ever any attempt to reference The West Wing. This is Married With Children with Al Bundy as Veep. And you're never going to see issues addressed and nobody is ever going to take a stand on anything.

Because these characters are incapable of addressing issues and of taking a stand. That's the joke. In place of issues will be political manoeuvering and political gaffes, such as talking in private with the microphone still on.

The VP will pursue campaigns which are too nebulous to be understood. Her staff of political advisors will fail her at every opportunity, through a mixture of incompetence, self-interest and in-fighting. Ultimately, they'll get her sacked; they will remain in the same posts, a new VP will take over.

Veep is probably Democrat. If the Other Party is shown, you'll be able to work out which is which, but it's not relevant. Because all political parties are administered by self-serving, career political advisors. Which is the joke.

The swearing may be a failure in translation. In "The Thick Of It", the central character, the Chief Spin Doctor, Malcolm Tucker, spreads terror through creative swearing and threats of violence. (The humour is in the creativity.) (Tucker is an extreme parody of a well-known, real-life Spin Doctor.) There needs to be a corresponding character in Veep for this to work.

Thomas said...

Should be noted that The Thick Of It does pick a side. While not mentioning it explicitly, it revolves around an MP in power during a period when Labour was in power, and it parodied Alastair Campbell in particular.
That said, it mostly dealt with politics going in circles, creating distractions for gaffs, and fiddling at the outside edges of power - nothing too party-political.

As has been noted, the swearing in TTOI was finely crafted and used excellently - and this is not something that would translate without porting entire characters over. (Also, the making-of was highly interesting: they do a clean run with the script, then they do an improv run of the same scene. The best parts of the two takes are blended together in editing to produce the final take. For a Friday question; have you ever encouraged significant actor improvisation?)

rchesson said...

Ken - I agree completely with your observations. I also agree that the Veep should identify with party or the other. I think back on MURPHY BROWN. A great deal of the humor was directly related to her character's political affiliation. And this during a rather nasty political time not all that different that today's.

And BTW - I relay enjoyably your travelog collection WHERE THE HELL AM I. Although as a frequent blog reader I have had some exposure to the posts, reading them in sequence adds to their cleverness and humor. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I dont think the Thick of It avoided political affiliations at all. It was (among other things) a close range, double barrel take down of New Labor and its many hypocrisies by a disenchanted liberal. That gave it much of its anger and purpose. I havent seen Veep but it may be lacking in the sense of outrage which TTOI had at its core

Chuck Morris said...

Hey Ken:

I sincerely value your opinion as a TV writer. I believe that you can diagnose problems with a show or a script due to your experience encountering and overcoming similar issues on shows that were both funny and socially relevant. So, that being said, here's where I disagree with you on Veep:

(1) I think the writer/creator's first priority was setting the distinctive tone and pace of the show. I think we'll see more character development quickly, but you can't do everything in the pilot episode. Many all-time great shows have taken many episodes (or a season) to get their feet under them. The talent in this cast would give them a puncher's chance even with bad writing. I think that the pilot was well-written, but offbeat. Time will tell.

(2) I think the humor to be explored in the lack of party affiliation is that, truth be told, a professional politician's first affiliation is to himself/herself. Party, issues, and values are secondary to political power, popularity and keeping one's job. Many elected officials have switched party affiliation to remain in power because there is only one side to every issue for an individual politician -- the winning side.

I do agree with you about the use of the F-bomb. I am hoping that the situation -- profanity being used by and near someone whose #1 job description is "maintain decorum" -- is the joke they're looking for. It's not much of a distinction (can you go for the cheap irony?) but I'm hoping that its just been a tone-setter, and won't be a crutch.

Anonymous said...

I can see where your review of the VEEP so far is coming from and could support the points, but I enjoyed it. The cast won me over, and I liked the balance of interaction between characters and plot momentum. It just on the good side of the line before crossing over into idiosyncratic quirks and hand-held camera jiggles over plot.

I believe Louis-Dreyfus is one of those actors who can really make saying F**K so natural it feels integral to what her character would do. The other characters, not so much. I thought as the first episode, this was just over-used to establish that it isn't an accidental slip.

I do think one wrong move is that she is too close to her staff, when I think it would still be more corporate management style, friendly but boss. So I appreciated her decision to hire that guy in the end, for her own purposes.

As for picking a political side, having seen d.c., I think it can be as the show presents it, that ALOT of politicians just become inner-directed in their own house, obsessesed with not stepping on lobbyist toes, with POTUS protocol or having their name on something "important" and avoiding bad press, etc... just management of their careers.

Old films taking place in Government, interestingly enough, the point of which party also rarely matters, even if you do know which side their on. Mr.Smith goes to Washington and so on... which party? Even if it is told, the story is the stupidity of the old-boys political system and the "little man" against that, etc..

I have to admit, BOOK OF PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN GOD would get my curiosity, but musical numbers would be needed still. If succesful, copy cat versions would appear: BOOK OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T BELIEVE IN GOD, or BOOK OF GOD WHO BELIEVES IN PEOPLE until some off-off-off production "BOOK"

HWah said...

The point IS that party ideology is irrelevant.

The Pulications Editor said...

To those of us who are lowly non-political staffers working in the environment, the show not only rings true but is extremely funny though it may be a bit too inside baseball for the rest of the viewing audience. Yes, the characters right now are archetypes: the amoral striving achiever, the name-dropping 20-something, the shaggy press secretary who does not want to work too hard, overburdened staff director, "thou shalt not pass" secretary, and the "how did they get here" idiot-savant who becomes indispensable to a politician. They are missing the upward-failing incompetent who advances through longevity and pleasantness. I think that the characters will be fleshed out given Iannucci's previous shows/experience.

I don't know if it has been discussed but the cultural references from the Matt Walsh character that are completely lost on the younger characters had me laughing because it happens every day up here. The walking/talking line about teaching the amoral staffer how to write a press release rings true. They are full of ambition, boundless energy, have PolySci degrees from the best universities, but have absolutely no basic skills (writing effectively, constituent service, how to operate office equipment) and void of culture.

Of course since I am a non-designate staffer I am considered "intelligent furniture" by most of the political staff so my bemused observations may be on par with those of the autopen.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

VEEP really seems more like a US remake of THE THICK OF IT than like any sort of new ideas (I just read the long New Yorker piece on Ianucci). THE THICK OF IT really grows out of the earlier YES, MINISTER, in that the earlier show established that the people really in charge of British government are the civil service. In the decades since, British politicians have studied the show and learned from it - and the Blair administration hired spin doctors and outside consultants in order to ensure they weren't held hostage by the civil service. The minister is just as befuddled now as in 1980, but different, less savory characters are in charge of his life.

I don't think this is an image American audiences will readily want to accept about their politicians quite apart from whether it's realistic. I was not fond of THE WEST WING because it was *such* fantasy that all parts of goverment would be so full of moral, decent, smart, hardworking people all trying to do their best. But that's a very appealing fantasy to a lot of people.

Quite apart from all that, I agree that it's not reasonable that someone at the level of a VP would make the kinds of mistakes JL-D's character makes.

At least the camera work is less annoying than on the UK counterpart.


Steve Zeoli said...

Ken wrote: "The utter hatred between the two sides and the unwillingness to compromise even for the good of them all is sadly now what defines our elected officials. How can you do a show about politics and ignore that elephant/donkey in the room?"

Look, I don't want to inject politics into your comments, but I have to correct this. Democrats (who I don't have a great love for, by the way) have been much more willing to compromise than Republicans. (This is a demonstrable fact, not just political hyperbole.) I know why you have hidden behind this false equivalence -- who wants a raging political debate on their blog? But I just couldn't let this comment go at face value.

McAlvie said...

I agree that a show about politics should slide party affiliation in there somewhere. That doesn't have to mean that their stance on issues has to be obvious. It is possible to hold to a general ideology and know, at the same time, that it doesn't perfectly fit every circumstance. You wouldn't know it to look at the current climate, but it has been known to happen. In any case, to ignore it entirely is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Unknown said...

By naming the parties it becomes a completely different show ...... simple as that, really.

VP81955 said...

This reminds me a little bit of the Kaufman-Ryskind-Gershwins musical, "Of Thee I Sing," that featured a comically ineffectual vice president of an non-existent party (with a comically ineffectual name to boot, Alexander Throttlebottom); this time, Throttlebottom has been packed with female hormones and turned into a pert brunette.

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

It may help to remember that THE WEST WING was more or less unique in naming its characters's party affiliations. I cannot think of any other American TV series about politicians that did so. Remember NANCY, THE GOVERNOR AND J.J., GRANDPA GOES TO WASHINGTON, MR. PRESIDENT? (Well, you probably do not, so trust me.) The most ridiculous example of this was the post-WEST WING series COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, about a President who literally did not belong to any party! Never mind AWAKE or GAME OF THRONES; this was the biggest fantasy yet on TV. So, one can argue that VEEP is but following in a long if not hallowed tradition.

My favorite TV series about politicians remains the 1960s Saturday morning cartoon SUPER PRESIDENT, in which a very JFK-like President of the United States gains super powers from a cosmic storm and promptly starts wearing tights and fighting crime.