Is HBO Making a Turn Toward Relevance?
After only two episodes, HBO’s Veep has already been renewed for a second season. The new comedy focuses on the often petty trials and tribulations of Selina Meyer, the vice president in a fictional White House. Anyone familiar with creator Armando Iannucci’s political comedy film In the Loop or his series The Thick of It already has a sense of what the series is like: a profane, irreverent, and deeply cynical look of the venial sins and failures of political power players and those in their orbit. It is precisely this pettiness and profanity that have led the political commentators who have covered Veep to largely decry it as shallow and insubstantial. The Slate political gabfest particularly eviscerated the series as unrealistic, inaccurate, superficial, and just plain lazy, leaving the one commentator who enjoyed it on the defense; however, this evisceration undermines the extent to which the series connects with a larger cycle of HBO programming that reveals tremendous relevance beneath Veep‘s veneer of frivolity.
Either by good luck or design, Veep hit the airways just as the political discussion was shifting from the Republican primary race to speculation about who Mitt Romney would select as a running mate. A Google news search for the word “veep” leads to a nearly equal selection of stories about the HBO series and Romney’s “veepstakes,” certainly an enviable position for HBO. Far from simply a matter of timeliness, the extent to which the discussions of Romney’s potential running mates focus on optics, personal politics and risk management undermines the claims of the chorus of political pundits declaring Veep unrepresentative of the actual political environment. While on its surface Veep is standard bawdy sitcom fare, with the politics taking backseat to the prat falls, underneath this surface a bitter truth about politics sits quietly.
Much of Veep focuses on exceptionally small things as opposed to the the earth-shattering, life changing politics of the New Deal or a new tax cut, more interested in crisis management and small-scale political maneuvering. While the politics of photo-ops, for example, lack the gravitas of The West Wing or even the similarly comedic Battleground, it is nonetheless a very real part of politics in the age of 24 hour news. Even as Veep’s first episode, which focuses largely on the fallout of an offensive tweet and subsequent joke, was criticized for being unrealistic and overly cynical, those critics concurrently rehashed the firestorm surrounding a controversial remark from commentator Hillary Rosen. Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney’s lack of work history had no policy effects of any kind and had been retracted by Rosen by the time the Sunday shows devoted significant portions of their program to discussing it. Despite pious claims to the contrary, optics and the trivial are—for better or worse—a significant part of American political life; the discomfort brought about by Veep’s skewering of this portion of American politics has perhaps more relevance than solemn programs which deny this reality.
In fact, Veep could be seen as part of a larger trend on HBO towards more realist, politically or socially relevant programming. Having found success with the fantastic with programs like True Blood and Game of Thrones, made-for-television movie Game Change ushered in a season of politically themed fictional programming on HBO. Game Change, chronicling the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, may have drawn extensive criticism from—largely Republican—commentators, but it also was seen by 3.6 million viewers during its first weekend, making it the highest-rated original movie on HBO in nearly a decade. With Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina dressed all in red in the first episode of Veep and caught in the midst of a Twitter scandal, Game Change may even have served as a stealth roll out for Veep‘s April premiere. Like Veep, Game Change is very much about the behind-the-scenes manipulations that take place in hopes of controlling political optics, and similarly speaks to American fears that behind closed doors our political figures may be bumbling, vain, and feckless.
Meanwhile, HBO is also interested in how these politics are being refracted through the media given the upcoming arrival of Aaron Sorkin’s latest behind-the-scenes drama series, Newsroom. HBO is airing the series’ trailers as bookends for each episode of Veep, suggesting that topicality rather than tone will help move audiences across these programs (and continue their HBO subscriptions through the summer). Newsroom follows a cable news program whose anchor has decided to bring honor back to the news by becoming an Edward R. Murrow-like figure that dispenses with fluff and objectionable politics for hard news. Sorkin’s television programs tend to feature characters who are imperfect but deeply honorable, and he seems to be bringing this redemptive vision not only to the frequently censured genre of cable news, but also to the increasingly invisible figure of the moderate Republican. While it is unlikely that Sorkin’s choice of a Republican for his main character will make it any more palatable to the conservatives that condemned Game Change, it could allow for a deeper and potentially more optimistic view into the divided American political system.
While Veep leaves political party up to the imagination to allow for a more resounding condemnation of American politics, Newsroom seems to deploy it to support its image of passion and redemption, of political figures who are not venal but virtuous. Whether this new crop of politically oriented programming will pay off for HBO is very much an open question, but the mixture of frustration, cynicism, and optimism that characterize this cycle of programs is quite relevant to our political time.