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Veep: “Signals”

From the start, Veep has been full of colorful language, such as Vice President Selina Meyer demanding a “Cartier dildo” in last week’s second-season premiere. This week, the show ramps up the sight gags, the highlight being Dan’s attempt to penetrate Kent’s inner circle by chatting him up during a Pilates workout. Actors Reid Scott and Gary Cole deserve credit for keeping straight faces with their bare feet in stirrups, pushing their legs as high and as wide apart as possible. (“The veep’s office is pumped about the new foreign-policy portfolio, sir,” Dan brown-noses.) Too bad Selina isn’t there to smirk at the idea of Dan getting ahead while lying on his back.

“Signals” also puts Jonah in a humiliating position, as he tries to cover up a faux pas by Selina, who’s been ambushed by a TV reporter at a barbecue. Wearing a cowboy hat and chowing down on a pulled-pork sandwich, she pledges American support for Israel while a pig rotates on a spit over her shoulder. (The scene brings to mind Sarah Palin’s Thanksgiving interview with a man slaughtering turkeys in the background.) Jonah steps into the TV frame to obscure the non-kosher pig, which means bending over, raising his rump, and looking to all of America as if he’s the one being brushed with barbecue sauce. As his character watches the live report from Washington, Cole wins deadpan delivery of the week with, “We really need a bulkier man in this situation.”

The understated performances do a lot to sell the ridiculous images in this consistently funny episode (and thank God for the lack of music). They also make it more effective when Selina finally loses it at the end, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing a slow burn after removing her hat to find that her hair has been pressed into what she calls a “Bozo” hairdo. (I think it’s more of a combination of Princess Leia and Carol Burnett’s “Eunice” character.) “Do you have any idea how foolish you’ve made me look?” she demands of personal assistant Gary (Tony Hale, looking appropriately like a crushed Buster Bluth in this show’s closest approximation yet of an Arrested Development episode).

Besides the increased emphasis on visual humor, “Signals” features a noticeably quicker-witted Selina, as if it’s dawning on her that she can’t coast on the limited talents of her staff. She doesn’t catch on to the unfortunate pig visual, but she does figure out that Gary’s girlfriend—who, surprisingly, does not live in Canada—is how the press found out about the secret signals she uses to get out of awkward encounters. Because of the leak, she now has to scratch her eyebrow to summon Gary with a phony phone call, overriding her concern that the action suggests that she has a particularly invasive case of crabs.

Selina also has to deal with her daughter Catherine, who has unwittingly caused a shitstorm by writing a college paper praising a Palestinian film for its “masterly portrayal of brutal, illegal Israeli aggression.” The veep smoothly negotiates a public apology from Catherine—after accusing her ex-husband of knowing how to “manipulate” their daughter at the beginning of the episode. And she interrogates Catherine’s new boyfriend, Rahim, quickly and efficiently, though she can’t keep her smile from retracting when he says his parents were born in Iran. (After he’s out of sight: “That Rahim seems to be a nice boy… Let’s run a security check on him and his entire family.”)

Then there’s her dispensable communications director, Mike (Matt Walsh, a master of hangdog expressions). Selina deftly swats away his attempt to get her help in erasing a $100,000 debt. (“Giving cash to my director of communications… Do you think that would play well, Mike?”) It doesn’t seem to occur to Mike to ask for a raise, but maybe he’s just smart enough to realize how stupid he’d look arguing that he’s been doing a good job.

Typically, none of the veep’s political skills are used to shape public policy in this episode. There are references to an ongoing international hostage situation, but Selina isn’t asked to help with that, as presidential advisor Kent insists on taking no action until public opinion forces them to do something (which may happen next week). Veep is all about the accumulation and preservation of power for its own sake, not for any public good.

Veep has been attracting a relatively large audience for HBO—bigger than for Girls and several times bigger than for Enlightened, if not at the level of Game Of Thrones —and I would be surprised if it doesn’t glide into a third season. It fits into a genre of TV shows that flatter the cultural elite and appeal to people who are disdainful of even well-made, challenging TV shows. Other examples are 30 Rock (which posits that the rest of TV is trash), HBO’s The Newsroom (TV journalism, at least outside of its fictional universe, is all garbage), and Mad Men (the seaminess of American culture is papered over with crass commercialism). In Veep’s case, the message is that political journalism, and all political discourse, is so pointless and superficial that it would be unconscionably naïve for Selina to pretend otherwise. Veep would be a favorite show of its own characters; you could call that navel-gazing, but Selina and company would surely prefer to use a certain sexual metaphor.

Stray observations:

  • “Signals” is directed by Chris Addison, who plays Ollie on Veep co-creator Armando Iannucci’s previous political sitcom,  The Thick Of It.
  • Selina isn’t the only one to show some character growth in this episode. Dan gets a little less scummy as he helps Amy to deal with her impossible family in the wake of her father’s hospitalization, showing some compassion even as he protests, “I’m not really great with death… or illness… or, you know, basic empathy.”
  • Mike: “We have to make these new signals subtle so that they don’t kind of look like signals.” Selina: “You do realize that was the point of the old signals, right, Mike?” Mike’s availability as a punching bag seems more important to Selina than having a press secretary who’s not a moron.
  • Or who recognizes sarcasm. Selina talking about her daughter: “We’ve had happier conversations, like when I told her her grandfather had died.” Mike: “Oh, she didn’t like him, huh?”
  • Selina saying that Catherine is due for a “daughterboarding” is one of the few terrible jokes in the episode.
  • Selina: “They want me to go to a pig roast to meet a bunch of men who probably took turns to fuck the pig before they roasted it?” Amy: “I wouldn’t presume they took turns.”
  • Selina’s attempt at small talk with the locals at the pig roast: “Look at you! A grown woman with cotton candy…. Oh, gosh, that looks like finger-licking fun. That’s a term I just coined today, do you like it?”
  • Jonah as cultural anthropologist: “Most Jews in this country are fine with pork. ‘Pork, shmork,’ they often say.”
  • Jonah greets Selina with a nod and a “Ma’am” as she boards Air Force Two. Is Selina’s response  – “Ucchh” – a nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Mel Cooley?
  • This week’s best clue that Selina is a Democrat: A pig farmer complains to her, “We’re fighting lies from many people in your party about the environmental impact about what we do.” It’s hard to imagine the GOP raising a fuss about pig shit.
  • Selina to her daughter: “If we lose the pro-Israel vote, then we lose Florida in two years, and that’s 29 electoral votes, and then Mommy’s out of a job.” Unlike the reference to Utah having at least nine congressional districts last week, the electoral vote count here is correct. You can still discuss whether the “pro-Israel vote” is distinct from the “Jewish vote” and whether either is still the key to an increasingly Hispanic Florida.
  • POTUS should consider sending Selina to negotiate with troublesome totalitarian regimes, as she’s able to find common ground with their leaders. When Dan tells her, “I just got a message about a paper that your daughter wrote that ended up on some guy’s blog,” she responds, “See, this is why China regulates their Internet.”
  • I don’t know why HBO sent a publicity shot (above) for an episode with so many great visuals.

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