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Veep: “Baseball”

B+

Veep

“Baseball”

Season 1, Episode 6

Well, that’s not what I was expecting.

Veep is a series that tries to strike a difficult balance between painstaking realism and high farce. The show’s increasingly broad comedy, which culminates in “Baseball” with the revelation 50ish-year-old Selina is “very, very pregnant,” plays out against the drab background of Washington life—the crowded government offices, the dowdy fashions, the dull-as-dirt photo ops. It’s a funny mixture, in a way: such a dramatic and personal plot twist playing out in a mundane public setting. But it’s true to the nature of Armando Iannucci’s brand of satire, which finds humor in the juxtaposition between these extremes.

“Baseball” opens at Camden Yards, where Selina, with an assist from the Orioles, is hosting the kick-off event for her new "Get Moving!" campaign. She looks miserable and can barely muster enough enthusiasm to do a little schmoozing. Of course, we assume it’s because she’s disappointed by her new assignment, only it turns out she’s got something much more urgent on her mind. She pulls Amy aside to share the news: Her judgment impaired by several glasses of wine and some Springsteen, Selina had unprotected sex with her boyfriend, Ted, and now she might be pregnant.

Let’s take a moment to break this scene down, shall we? There’s so much about it that’s surprising, not the least of which is the news itself.  There's also the incongruous setting. Here’s Selina, telling her chief of staff incredibly personal news in an enormous, albeit empty, baseball stadium. Then there’s the implicit role reversal between the middle-aged boss and her twentysomething staffer. Like a terrified teenager, Selina vacillates between colorful denial (“I could probably have unprotected sex with 30 men, one right after the other, and it would be fine”) and sheer panic (“I’ll have to go on a vacation to Mexico and kill the doctor in the desert”). Her tone is almost apologetic, as if she expects the scolding that follows: “An unwed mother, one aneurysm away from the presidency. How do you think that plays?”

 The relationship between Amy and Selina is, I think, one of the strongest aspects of the writing on Veep. Amy is like a daughter, best friend, policy adviser, and executive assistant all rolled into one. There’s just something utterly convincing about this dynamic. Amy is close to Selina in a way that her other staffers are not, and not just because she's also a woman. Amy’s also fast on her feet, smart, and loyal without being a sycophant. In short, it makes sense that Selina relies on her so heavily.

Amy's the one who really has her shit together, but she’s still the employee, and so it’s her job—nay, her duty—to fetch some pregnancy tests for Selina. Here’s where everything really starts to go pear-shaped. Amy makes the questionable decision to tell Mike about the potential bun in the oven. I’m assuming she does this in order to give him enough time to devise a press strategy, but it still seems slightly out of keeping with her usually discreet nature. Whatever her motive, Amy’s move backfires: In a rather sitcomy mix-up, she mishears Mike over the phone and thinks that news of Selina’s possible pregnancy has already leaked to the press.  (It’s nice how that seemingly throwaway sideplot about the Secret Service agent from a few episodes back actually pays off, isn’t it?)

While Selina rides out a gas main break at the stadium, Amy goes into crisis-management mode. She picks up a pregnancy test, then sends poor Gary out to fetch even more. Gary’s only wish in this episode—to pose for a picture with the Orioles in order to impress his macho dad—is scuttled because he’s out buying up every pregnancy test in Baltimore. Veep is incredibly efficient when it comes to filling out backstory, and in “Baseball” we learn a tremendous amount about Gary from just a few brushstrokes.  We get just enough suggestion of his background for him to make sense, but never so much that it impedes the comedy. In fact, this might have been Gary’s finest episode yet, from his sweet, if somewhat misplaced, excitement over Selina’s pregnancy to his hilariously fumbling trip to the pharmacy. (His question about buying “maternity underwear” really cracked me up.)

One thing Veep really nails is the weird, contradictory relationships between people in power and their underlings. Selina has almost no respect for Gary, and yet he’s got this incredibly intimate relationship with her, attending to her every bodily need day in and day out. When he whispers into Selina’s ear, telling her that she is, in fact, pregnant you can practically feel his pride. This is a terrible, terrifying moment for Selina, who looks utterly panic-stricken as she sings “If You’re Happy And You Know It”—it’s her My Pet Goat moment. But for Gary, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Veep has been reluctant, at least so far, to make Selina’s gender a main issue in the series, but now it’s front and center in a way that presents something of a creative risk for the series. It's either insane and in terrible taste or a stroke of genius; I tend to think it's the latter. To date, the fact that Selina’s a woman has mostly been secondary to the frustration of her new job as vice president, a role that anyone, man or woman, would find likely find infuriating. Yes, there have been rumblings about her wardrobe, her “diva” behavior, and her rumored rivalry with the First Lady, but until now, Veep has been more interested in power and deal-brokering than in the regressive gender politics of DC.

But the pregnancy is, to use the some beltway parlance, a game-changer. I am not really sure how the series can move forward with a story like this and leave her gender on the sidelines anymore, especially now that Selina has commanded Ted to retroactively propose to her. Speaking of which: Does it get any less romantic than that? Also, how blindsided does poor Ted look after Selina's phone call? 

I wonder if maybe this is what Iannucci and co. had in mind all along: Draw us in with a sharp, fast, funny show about politics in general, and then change course midstream. The pregnancy storyline is a little soapy, it’s a whole lot crazy, but it’s also quite possibly brilliant. Twenty years after Murphy Brown dared to portray single motherhood as a valid choice, there’s now a pregnant, single female vice president on Veep. I sure hope Dan Quayle is watching.

Stray observations:

  • Here’s another episode that, like “Frozen Yoghurt” resorts to toilet humor, though I’m not entirely sure it needs it—especially the shot of Selina, cup-o’-pee in hand, asking “Why am I repugnant?” Occasionally the series will go for these broad obvious moments, which are never quite as satisfying as the more subtle ones.
  • Jimmy  Barrett plays a lip-reading photographer with hot hands, a subplot that to me seems distinctly Seinfeldian.
  • As some commenters pointed out last week, even Selina’s new “issue,” obesity, has gender connotations. Can you imagine a male veep getting this kind of assignment?
  • I have the perfect solution to Selina’s problem: Gary secretly places a bar of soap right outside of Selina’s bathtub. 

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