Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Veep: Second-class citizenship lesson

Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays the vice president on the new HBO show.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays the vice president on the new HBO show.
Posted: April 17, 2012

VEEP. 10 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

“What have I been missing here?” asks Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she prepares to make nice with a senator (Kate Burton) she hopes will get her out of a tight spot with the plastics industry.

“Power,” replies the senator, who only pretends to be joking.

That’s one exchange from the Sunday premiere of HBO’s satiric, and hilariously profane “Veep” that doesn’t require the insertion of dashes. It also sums up the predicament in which the holder of what our first vice president, John Adams, called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived” finds herself after losing her party’s nomination to a man who apparently stopped calling as soon as she’d helped get him elected.

Not that we’re going to find out what party she belongs to, the political realities of “Veep” being so universal that the show was created by a Scotsman, Armando Iannucci (“The Thick of It,” “In the Loop”), who’s been poking fun at politics mostly from the other side of the pond until now.

“I was always one of those geeks as a teenager who waited who stayed up through the night to watch the American election results,” Iannucci told reporters in January.

And, yes, he “loved” “The West Wing.” But “that portrayal of Washington as a clean and noble heartland just wouldn’t wash with the public. We’ve seen too much now,” said Iannucci, who apparently had no problem with the part where everyone in Washington talks very, very fast.

The people behind “Veep” have no doubt done their homework. Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist and theater critic who moved to New York magazine last year, is an executive producer. Louis-Dreyfus said she’d talked with “a couple” of vice presidents, refusing to name names.

Beltway insiders may enjoy trying to figure out the who’s who of it all, though Iannucci insists Selina Meyer is entirely made up. “We weren’t looking to do a take on Sarah Palin, of beloved memory, or Hillary Clinton or anybody like that.”

But at its twisted heart, “Veep” is a workplace comedy.

And what a workplace.

Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”) plays Gary, who hovers at the vice president’s shoulder, feeding her tidbits of information that make her look as if she’s actually been paying attention to people. It’s worth tuning in just to watch him try to use a single-serve coffeemaker for the first time.

He’s joined by Matt Walsh as Mike, the press secretary, whose idea of damage control is to hope that something much worse will happen to someone else before the end of the news cycle; Anna Chlumsky, who was also in Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” as Amy, the chief of staff, who spends at least part of each day fending off the attention of an arrogant young giant named Jonah (Timothy C. Simons), the office’s main contact with the White House; Sufe Bradshaw as Sue, the executive assistant who should probably be running things; and Reid Scott (“My Boys”) as an ambitious interloper.

With all due respect to old “Christine,” Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t had a new adventure this interesting since “Seinfeld,” and she brings just the right mix of fun and frustration to a character who means well but who can rarely afford to say what she means.

It’s a thankless job. I’m thankful she’s doing it.

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.comor follow on Twitter @elgray.Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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