In the years since M*A*S*H (1972-1983) the only politically charged scripted television series of note have been HBO’s Veep (2012-), The Brink (2015-), and the Disney Channel show Cory in the House (2007-2008) which shockingly, despite being a spin-off of the hit show That’s So Raven (2003-2007), wasn’t critically acclaimed. Perhaps because political satire is handled so well and so completely by talk shows such as The Daily Show (1996-), The Colbert Report (2005-2014), and Real Time with Bill Maher (2003-) the realm of scripted political comedy on television is almost entirely vacant. Thus due to the clear vacuum in scripted political TV comedy HBO has embraced the opportunity to corner that market with two very different shows.
Veep follows Selena Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as President of the United States (as of Season 3) whose ineptitude only rivals that of her staff members from bumbling press secretary Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) to self-important anxiety ridden bagman Gary Walsh (Tony Hale). The supposed “stars” of Selena’s team, assistant press secretary turned campaign manager Dan Egan (Reid Scott) and chief of staff turned second campaign manager Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), manage to sometimes get it right, but, like everybody else, their actions always turn to shit. Almost every character we meet on Veep loses any shred of dignity and composure when coming in contact with Selena and her team and by the end of the most recent season (4) in which the presidential election ends in a tie (which according to http://usgovinfo.about.com can actually happen) it doesn’t seem like any character on that show is fit to run the country. Despite the astounding levels of incompetence oozing from the heads of state, the conflicts in Veep are almost completely internalized within the government. We rearely, if ever, witness how Selena and her fellow law-makers’ actions affect the country and the average American, nor do we actually know what the substance of Selena’s proposed legislations even do bearing such vague titles as “Family’s First” and the “Green Jobs Commission,” both of which, like Selena’s aspirational goals while in office, are just comical place holders for ineffectual political maneuvers.
The Brink stars Tim Robbins as the Secretary of State Walter Larson a position that is never seen or even mentioned in Veep. The President in Brink (played by Esai Morales) is more of an obstacle Walter has to circumnavigate than he is a driving character and gets no more than five or six lines every episode. The Vice President has not yet been seen or mentioned in the first four episodes of the first season. Walter seems to be good at his job and, despite Tim Robbins’ inability not to mumble when speaking to fellow government employees, he appears to have good intentions and is a character we root for (although I guess that depends on your stance regarding nuclear war). At the same time Walter is a borderline alcoholic (albeit highly functioning), has no problem breaking employee standards and practices when it comes to sleeping with hot translators, and is trying, unsuccessfully, to manipulate his wife (Carla Gugino) into not taking a job because he’s afraid she would have power over him if she took it. So Walter is an asshole except for when it comes to the end of the world. The decisions made by Walter and the rest of the heads of state are actually seen carried out in the forms of Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber) a talented air force pilot/drug dealer who can’t pay alimony to his ex-wife and two kids and Alex Talbot (Jack Black) a low level American embassy worker in Pakistan who, due to his overwhelming levels of stupidity, accidentally becomes involved in a coup d’eta thus becoming an important agent for Walter.
These two shows have apparent distinctions from each other not only in what aspects of government and world politcs each chooses to explore but the type of characters they employ in their fictional governments. Every character in Veep, even if they may not know it, is a self-centered narcissist just trying to get ahead in the political jungle that is America or more specifically Washington D.C. In The Brink the central characters’ wants seem to lie somewhere between selfishness and wanting to save the world. Walter is definetely capable of doing his job, but he also enjoys prostitutes and booze very much, and we’re not really sure which takes priority with him. In the first episode he tells his assistant (Maribeth Monroe) that he “should have asked for secretary of the interior, no one’s going to take you away from a hooker in the middle of the night to save Mount Rushmore,” but in the most recent episode he risks almost having his bladder explode from a kidney stone in order to make a deal with the Indian ambassador to avoid a potential war between India and Pakistan. Zeke is similarly talented at his job but gripes about his mistaken belief that it was gonna be easier and more lucrative than it actually is: “flying 65 million dollar jets for minimum fucking wage, I should’ve been a plummer like my brother, son of bitch makes out like a bandit.” Alex on the other hand seems virtualy useless, but is the only one who admits that they want to make a difference in the world, which he says while smoking weed and talking about the hookers he’s able to score while walking away from a riot in Islamabad. So when Alex accidentally becomes important he suddenly becomes motivated, partially because he could die if he screws things up, but also because he wants fame and recognition fast and easy.
Veep‘s style and subject matter seems to have taken more notes from films like Dave (1993), My Fellow Americans (1996), and Head of State (2003) in depicting the near absurdity of politics as well as de-idolizing it. Much of the comedy of the recent season targets the electoral college and how the voting system is idiotic which Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep, could have gotten inspiration from films like Man of the Year (2006) and Swing Vote (2008). The Brink picks up more from Dr. Strangelove (1964) which is discussed futher here. It‘s probably influnced by M*A*S*H as well even though M*A*S*H is more of a dramedy while The Brink is closer to dark comedy. “These are the people serving our country?” is the comical tone both shows seem to present, but where Veep is people only acting in their self-interest The Brink is people “sort of” doing their best under nuclear level circumstances.