Newsroom and Veep are two new television series that tell us about the high-brow television landscape. Both are on HBO, the presumed bastion for quality television, and both have a political inflection, though they approach politics from different directions. Newsroom is a political show about journalism; Veep is a journalistic show about politics.
Newsroom is the more respectable show. It is written by Aaron Sorkin, the poster child of educated, liberal creativity. His multi-Emmy-winning The West Wing has been canonized in some quarters for its rendering of a utopian democratic administration — why, one wonders, hasn’t the Obama administration gotten him to help with its narrative? In Newsroom, his characters are equally skewed toward left-leaning idealism, although the lead character, exemplary anchorman Will MacAvoy ( Jeff Daniels), is given a nominal Republican affiliation as a sop to even-handedness. We discover his darkish side when he visits a therapist (now an obligatory motif in serious shows). The women in this series, as in The West Wing, continue to be brilliant neurotics who stammer when they get excited (to demonstrate, presumably, that they are so intensely invested in their ideas that they don’t mind looking charmingly imperfect). All the characters, regardless of stutters, accents, and tics, deliver their lines at Sorkin’s signature break-neck speed. This speed of delivery, which might seem a postmodern tribute to screwball comedy were there enough comedy to support it, is a signal that time is pressing in the mad rush to reform the world of journalism.
The mix of affluence and enlightenment that coats everything in Newsroom could be tied to Sorkin’s upbringing in Scarsdale, New York — a bastion of affluent enlightenment and a place where he may have first encountered the act of smashing a shoulder into a wall or a fist into a computer out of frustration over poverty, racism, and greed. Both behaviors are enacted by characters in the fifth episode of Newsroom; a third gets a head wound when a door slams in his face; and a fourth receives injuries while covering the Egyptian uprisings against Mubarak. These incidents are presented as relatively equal and reflecting the fervent journalistic values of the characters involved.
Veep is the creation ofArmando Iannucci, who was responsible for the farcical rendering of British politics, The Thick of It. The show casts the great Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, a sadsack vice president of the United States. A running joke has Selina asking her regal, perfectly coiffed secretary if “he” has called, and being told, invariably, that he has not. Veep is as fast-paced as Newsroom; its characters exchange quips at as dizzy a speed. But they are deliberately cartoonish and there is no actual content to their frenetic exertions. As a result, the comedy can flourish without having to minister to an ideology or a mission. One doesn’t have to worry about fists slamming into computers in moral outrage, except insofar as it makes them look like fools. There is no effort to make viewers feel superior for agreeing with strident idealists.
Veep appears at first to be low-brow sitcom with high-brow production values, performances, and scripts. Indeed, it would probably get more respect (for like its protagonist, it hasn’t gotten much) were it not stuck on HBO where just being funny isn’t enough. Still, in being funny in the way it is, Veep is also a better show — more real and more important — than Newsroom.
The issue of women in politics is a vexed one. How much sexism is there in the political sphere? How much do women contribute to their own difficulties? What should women wear if they want to get ahead? How much should their emotions enter into their decisions and their presentation? How should they relate to staff members and peers? Veep grapples with all these issues, albeit farcically. A narrow and earnest treatment of them can be found in the USA miniseries Political Animal, starring Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, a more fashion-savvy version of Hillary Clinton.
Selina Meyer is no Hillary Clinton and certainly no Elaine Barrish. (Elaine is tall and patrician in her designer clothes whereas Selina is short and disheveled in clothes that are too tight.) Selina is, instead, a kind of I Love Lucy VP. Like Lucy, she is zany, continually side-tracked by minutiae, and subject to scrapes and misunderstandings. This is what makes the show funny, as it made I Love Lucy funny. But it also should be remembered that Lucille Ball was breaking ground in I Love Lucy. She was representing a woman who was not an exemplar of taste and decorum and was driven, in her madcap adventures, by imaginative zest and willfulness — as well as anxiety and paranoia. Louis-Dreyfus, too, is using the political setting to recalibrate our sense of what it means to be a woman in politics. But unlike Lucy, who was performing at a time when gender roles were not yet questioned, her Selina is vice president in the 21st century, when everything is questioned. In being a woman, she becomes a commentary on women in politics. But she also becomes a commentary on people in politics. For being a woman now can be a metaphor — an expression of the human condition writ large.
I am not saying that women are more human than men (though, come to think of it, this may be true), but that the range of appurtenances and qualities associated with women lend themselves more to representation. They make for more comedy because they offer more material to explore the questions of what it means to be human. Selina’s clothes, shoes, hair, food, romantic entanglements, maternal impulses, even her period (or lack of one) alongside her involvement with peers, subordinates, and constituents are the stuff of farcical comedy but also of insight into the difficulty of juggling private and public, the trivial and the grandiose, the body and the mind, as these things constantly abrade each other in the course of daily life. Newsroom tries to do the same thing with its stagey romantic entanglements as they abut the characters’ fervent pursuit of “the news,” but they are not insightful or funny or real. They are, like the news that is being rehashed as though it were current, pre-packaged and rote.
At first, I was a bit put off by the emphatic refusal to connect Selina’s actions with any specific party or political idea. Even the character’s name, Selina Meyer, deftly suggests both a Hispanic and a Jewish affiliation without making clear if there is a basis for either. Indeed, there is no content to Veep that isn’t entirely generalized or side-stepped. The legislation she backs (filibuster reform, clean jobs) seems uncontroversial and vague, only of interest as it relates to Selina’s career or her ego: Will she win or lose, be facilitated or frustrated? Inevitably, always, it’s the latter.
But I soon realized that the content of whatever it was she was doing had to be eliminated for the show to have any representational integrity. Unlike Newsroom, which focuses relentlessly on content, to the point that it uses real political events from 2010, Veep is interested in process, which is timeless, and, toward this end, has to eschew specific content. Newsroom feels old and labored for all its fast pacing. It is rehashing what already happened and thus able to arrange people and events neatly for its purposes. Veep is up to date because it deals with relations and tendencies that exist as I write.
Am I making too much of a silly sitcom? Perhaps. But the show amuses me, soothes me, and oddly, make me feel hopeful in a way Newsroom doesn’t. I root for Selina as a messy human being in a world that is using all its power and ingenuity to flatten and airbrush her. That world is politics but it is also television, both of which seek to create stale content out of the wild, unpredictable, contemporaneous human stuff that makes things happen and make things funny. • 22 August 2012