What does it feel like to be a heartbeat away from the centre of power yet have no real power of your own? That's the question posed by Armando Iannucci's new comedy, Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer.
Selina should be important. She's a respected politician and former Presidential candidate and if the President should unfortunately die, she's next in line. Yet despite this her day-to-day existence is filled with minor frustrations. Her speeches are rewritten to the point of absurdity, her initiatives are smothered at birth, her attempts at power-broking defeated.
"It's a very powerful position, and yet at the same time I don't think there's a politician out there who would say they aspire to be Vice President," says Louis-Dreyfus. "It's a strange paradox."
Simultaneously cheerleader and attack dog, the thankless position exists to take the heat off the President when necessary and to ensure that if something does go horribly wrong, the transition of power is smooth. If the President has a controversial policy he wants to push through or an urgent need for attention to be diverted, the Veep's office is his first port of call.
"The comic potential for the Vice President is that at the whim of the President, they can either be very powerful or have all that power diminished," says Iannucci. "Selina Meyer is someone who had influence when she was a senator. Now she finds herself in a situation where you would think she has even more but in reality she has slightly less with all the daily frustrations that brings."
This being a Iannucci show those frustrations are both myriad and highly inventive. The West Wing this isn't. Iannucci laughs. "I loved The West Wing but I want to show the reality of Washington," he says. "Politics is like any other big industry. It's full of people who are good at their job and people who are not so good at it but are very ambitious, and people who are just terrible. It's like any other workplace except the decisions these people are making can have an enormous impact."
He admits that he was initially worried about how Veep's caustic humour would play with an American audience. Where British viewers have a long tradition of undercutting their politicians from Yes, Minister to House of Cards, Americans take politics altogether more seriously.
"There's this feeling of 'who are you to come and tell us how our politics works?'" he says. "But we did a lot of research – it helps that I've always been a politics junky. I'm one of those people who stays up all through the night in the UK to watch the US elections..."
It helped too that the VP's Office were extremely helpful, answering questions, visiting the Baltimore set and even throwing open the doors to the Veep's office and allowing them to take measurements. Louis-Dreyfus met with a number of (sadly unnamed) former Vice Presidents, a situation she describes as "interesting, as much for what they didn't say as what they did".
"I want it to be right and I want to be accurate so I needed to know the dull stuff," Iannucci adds. "What time do people get into the office in the morning? What time do they go home? Who do they sit next to? What are they like? What background do they have? If a call comes through from a TV show or newspaper, who takes the call? How do they issue a retraction?"
What about the swearing? Can Veep match those breathlessly baroque tirades delivered by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It? Iannucci never intended to try. "My take on DC is that although there's swearing it's not as brutal," he says. "I'm told the Pentagon is the place to go for swearing although Rahm Emanuel [Obama's former Chief of Staff] was famous for his language..."
He pauses. "What I didn't want to do was another version of The Thick of It," he says. "This has a very different dynamic. The Thick of It is very much about politicians who are so low down the rung of the ladder that they have no real position and nobody really knows that much about them whereas this is about someone who is the Vice President. She has the trappings of power, which makes the comedy different."
Some American critics felt the lack of a character like Tucker left the show feeling flat. There have also been complaints that Veep's neutrality, its refusal to say which party Selina is in, weakens its power.
"We never say the name of the party Selina is a member of or the President's name. In fact, we never meet the President because it's not about the politics of Washington, it's about the process," says Iannucci. "It's not a documentary, it's just trying to give a snapshot of how politics works. The people in the show aren't bad people. They're trying to make something happen but the nature of politics and the nature of how their office works means that they end up having to compromise here and there and before they know it they're doing the opposite of what they wanted to do."
'Veep' starts on Monday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
In the loop - Candidates for small-screen success
'Veep' isn't the only political show heading America's way in election year. Here are some other strong contenders.
House of Cards
That's right, a US remake of 'House of Cards'. Stop the screams of pain though because the new show, currently filming in Baltimore, is directed by David Fincher and stars Kevin Spacey. If anyone can match Ian Richardson's serpentine charm, he might be the man.
This six-part mini-series stars Sigourney Weaver (above) as a former First Lady-turned-Secretary of State juggling her private and public life. Any resemblance to the life of current First Lady-turned-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is presumably entirely intentional.
The latest from Shonda 'Grey's Anatomy' Rhimes has Kerry Washington as a steely former White House Communications Director who now runs a crisis-management firm in Washington. Just as well because disaster appears to dog the denizens of DC in this sudsy show.
The Book of Mormon's Josh Gad stars in this upcoming family comedy set in the White House. Bill Pullman sticks to doing what he does best – playing the President.Reuse content