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Veep: “Nicknames”

So far in its first season, Veep has taken a rather measured approach when it comes to Selina’s backstory. While there have been hints all along about her failed presidential bid, “Nicknames” is the first episode to deal in a very explicit way with her professional disillusionment. It’s an emotionally incisive half-hour that’s unusually sensitive, if not exactly sympathetic, to the plight of the career politician—people we don’t often feel sorry for nowadays—and, as a result, it's also the show’s darkest and most cynical installment yet.

As vice president, Selina has a rather limited portfolio, but Selina has made clean jobs legislation her goal. From virtually the very first second of Veep, the bill has been her single obsession. As “Nicknames” begins, the fate of the legislation hangs in the balance. Selina continues to feel slighted by POTUS, and when he leaves her out of a meeting about his signature piece of legislation, a fiscal responsibility bill, she freaks out. She takes off her shoes, makes a mad dash over to the White House, and barges into the closed-door meeting, her chest heaving from the effort. The humor here is overly broad, but it at least gets the point across unambiguously: Selina feels left out.

Driven mad with insecurity, Selina interrogates Gary and Amy about her various internet nicknames—“Dickless Can Dyke,” Veep Throat,” “Vaselina”—and learns that her staff has a news alert for all of them. Later, Selina exposes her vain side when she misinterprets one of her nicknames, “Viagra Prohibitor,” as a compliment. (Though, truth be told, it’s hard to believe anyone would think of Julia Louis Dreyfus as anything other than hot.) The point is to show, in a humorous way, the very human vulnerability of someone who also happens to be in a position of great power.

I appreciate what Armando Iannucci and his team are trying to do in “Nicknames,” but I'm not entirely sure I buy just how thin-skinned Selina is. While I’m sure there are plenty of important politicians who are as self-obsessed and insecure as Selina, I’m also fairly certain that it takes a resilient person to make it as far as she has—especially if that person happens to be a woman. There are plenty of reasons why Hillary Clinton has worked her way to the top in DC, while Sarah Palin has morphed into a reality-TV star: At some point, you have to learn how to remain above the fray.

Meanwhile, Selina asks Dan to collect some “White House intel”—basically the grown-up, Washington DC version of schoolyard gossip. He spends most of the episode cozying up to Jonah, first over a carbohydrate-heavy lunch at a greasy spoon and later at some kind of yuppie place he picks out. Jonah is a comic invention who grows funnier by the week. In “Nicknames,” we learn that he’s a metalhead. It’s a detail I find surprising, at least initially; I would have pegged Jonah for a Coldplay fan. But it's a surprise that pays off handsomely, since we get to see Jonah thrashing around at the concert—“This is fucking primordial!”—while Dan tries, oh-so-casually, to extract critical intel from him.

The dynamic between Dan and Jonah is, I think, rather well done, even if their relentless meanness can be a little tiring. Dan is undoubtedly going to go further in politics than Jonah, simply because he’s more ruthless and conniving. For now, though, Jonah’s in a position of power because of his job at the White House, something that quite obviously annoys Dan. He doesn’t like having to ingratiate himself to a putz like Jonah. But in the end, it’s Dan who looks the fool, because he takes Jonah at his word, and believes when he reports that the president wants to make clean jobs a priority. As Judith Miller can tell you, intelligence is only as good as your source.

Just as Selina is prepping to debate the clean jobs bill, the news comes in that POTUS is killing clean jobs in order to clear the way for his fiscal responsibility legislation. Selina loses it, pitching a five-alarm hissy fit. Dan, in turn, proposes a Machiavellian solution: They can take the meat of the clean jobs bill, and propose it as an amendment to the president’s legislation. There’s something almost didactic about how this plot unfolds: “Nicknames” functions like a primer in legislative sausage-making. Even though it’s the kind of back-door maneuver that happens all the time in DC, Selina heeds Amy’s advice to avoid the “VP bear trap” and nixes the idea.  

On her way to the airport for a trip to Paris, Selina gets a phone call: She’s needed to break a tie vote on what’s now known as “the Macauley Amendment” and is essentially a whittled-down version of the clean jobs bill. Selina’s first response isn’t wondering how the Macauley Amendment got through, since she voiced her opposition to this tactic, but to ask her staff which way her “principals and conscience” should tell her to vote. Despite the easy joke about Selina’s murky conscience, there’s something that rings false about this reaction. Surely, Selina ought to be pissed that the measure went through in the first place, right?

The vice president, called in to cast the deciding vote on the bill she’s been working on for months, finds herself in a situation saturated with irony. “This is some weird-ass, Through The Looking Glass shit,” she says. It’s not articulate, but it’s certainly apt. Things only get stranger when Amy, who supports the bill, encourages Selina to vote against it while Dan, who opposes it, encourages her to go for it. It’s a way for Veep to show how many considerations go into every vote in the Senate, and how little of it actually has to do with the relative merits of the legislation. 

Dan, for instance, sees the vote as a power play, while Amy sees it as a way to for Selina to prove her loyalty to the president. In the end, Amy wins, as Selina snuffs out the very bill she spent months working on—she is, to use a quote she might understand all too well, hoisted by her own petard. I don’t know enough about Congress to know whether this kind of thing has happened before. Given how polarized and intractable DC has become, I tend to think it couldn’t happen these days—most everyone moves in lockstep with their party—but I honestly don’t know.

With clean jobs off the table, Jonah, breaks the bad news: Selina’s new issue is obesity, the one thing she never wanted to deal with in the first place. As the credits roll, Selina complains to Amy about the assignment and her general discomfort around fat people. “It’s about self-control. You don’t masturbate on the subway,” she says. It’s easily the ugliest side of her we’ve seen, capping off an episode that casts her in a decidedly negative light. I'm all for flawed characters, especially in comedies, but one thing we have yet to see is any real hint of what makes Selina a successful politician: Is she charismatic? A master negotiator? A stirring orator? There has to be something.

Stray observations:

  • Veep has so far avoided doing the “fictional take on an actual news event” thing that so many other shows do, but the parallels between Selina's new assignment and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity are pretty clear. Is the point that Selina has about as much power as a First Lady?
  • I have to give credit to Mike for the following joke: “Do I smoke in bed? I’ve never heard any complaints.”
  • Selina yells at Dan for going to Jonah for intel. “That’s like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo,” she says, a joke that’s a little too close to Malcolm Tucker’s famous “useless as a marzipan dildo” insult. I cannot condone self-plagiarism!
  • Jonah: “I got a cock like cappuccino frother.”
  • Sydney: “I’m going to see to it that it gets chewed up like a dead prostitute in a wood chipper.”
  • Selina: “How ‘bout if you scroll up?” Sue: “That’s the past, ma’am.”
  • Saddest moment of the episode: the look on Gary's face when Selina asks him to go get her crab cakes instead of going to his Zumba class.
Filed Under: TV, Veep

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