The new (4th) season of "Veep" will be shown on HBO on April 12, 2015. At the conclusion of Season 3, Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) had learned that she was succeeding the POTUS who had resigned (to allow VPOTUS Meyer to seek reelection as an incumbent). The first thought that occurred to this blogger/viewer was the problem with series title: "VEEP." If Selina moves into the White House, the title will need to change to reflect a new virtual reality. The possibilities seemed endless, but given Selina's limitations (like the real-life running mate on the Dumbo ticket in 2008), the most appropriate new title would be "Her Fraudulency." If this is (fair & balanced) political satire, so be it.
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus And Tony Hale’s Demented Double Act On "Veep"
By Sam Anderson
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
The show begins — the very first scene of the very first episode — with a man helping a woman put on her coat. The man is tall. The woman is small. The man is balding. The woman has the shimmering hair of an extremely convincing shampoo ad. The man wears a nondescript dark suit, a striped tie and some kind of ID badge — the uniform of the bureaucratic functionary. He has a five o’clock shadow and the hint of a double chin. The woman wears a snug red dress with a deep neckline, an elegant gold necklace, understated makeup. She is the vice president of the United States. Getting her coat on is therefore an official matter of state, and the man is clearly treating it as such; he concentrates intently on maneuvering her right arm into the coat’s right sleeve. The woman, meanwhile, pays no attention to the man or to the coat, never even glances back; she stares forward, into the eyes of her chief of staff, with whom she is having a conversation.
“Who else is confirmed?” the vice president asks. “Is Senator Dorsey confirmed?”
The vice president will be attending an event and wants to make sure its guest list suits the prodigious requirements of her vanity.
Watch the man’s hands. The vice president reaches back, unconsciously, to put her bare arm through the coat’s open sleeve, but she takes too high an angle — so the man reaches down and, with a pinch of his long delicate fingers, steers the woman’s forearm a few degrees lower. He tucks her arm into the sleeve like a letter into an envelope. It is the gesture — all at once — of a mother, a lover, a caretaker, a servant.
Now that the arm is in the sleeve, the man gently touches the vice president on the shoulder, like a trainer praising a show dog, and then pivots away, immediately, to the next vital matter of state: arranging papers on a desk. The vice president buttons her coat and continues her conversation, and soon she and her entourage are all moving down a hallway, still talking, with the man trotting at her side, hauling an oversize leather bag, being ignored.
This is our introduction to Selina Meyer, the titular vice president of HBO’s political satire “Veep,” and Gary Walsh, her so-called bag man. (A bag man is basically a white-collar political sherpa.) They are the most and least powerful characters in a universe obsessed with power. That first interaction — the putting on of the sleeve — lasts approximately two seconds, but it contains the entire relationship: a profound intimacy that is also, somehow, no intimacy at all.
Gary and Selina are embodied by a pair of unusually subtle comic actors: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of “Seinfeld” fame, and Tony Hale, of “Arrested Development” semi-cult-notoriety. (He played Buster Bluth, the mother-terrorized man-child.) They complement each other perfectly. Louis-Dreyfus is beautiful and compact, with an angular face, a classic nose, and a strong, pointed chin. Hale is tall and gangly. His nose is large. His chin is soft, and his constant looking down often doubles it. Louis-Dreyfus’s face is always framed, in the show, by her perfect vice-presidential hair: It’s like a small theater for the performance of expressions. Hale, by contrast, is bald and has a big, round, wide-open moon face: It’s as if his whole head is his face, a pale sphere designed to beam emotions out across the room. Both actors are dexterous physical comedians, and their scenes together have the feel of carefully worked-out dance routines — two bodies probing the closed, quiet spaces of official government offices.
Gary and Selina cohabit a dysfunctional not-quite-romance: brutal, abusive, pathetic and unbalanced, but, at the same time, almost in spite of itself, soulful and affectionate. The show’s creator, Armando Iannucci, calls their performance “a strange, demented double act.” As the show begins its fourth season on April 12 , the rapport between Hale and Louis-Dreyfus has ripened into one of the greatest shows-within-a-show on television — and one of the most satisfying comic pairings in TV history.
When Iannucci was conceiving “Veep,” he heard that every senior politician in Washington had a body man — someone to carry supplies, provide snacks and act as a social buffer. A sort of interpersonal-logistical Secret Service agent. A human ball bearing. Most of these people are young — for example, Obama’s Reggie Love — because the job is a perfect springboard to a sustainable, grown-up career.
But then somebody told Iannucci that, on rare occasions, a body man will stick around for decades — he’ll still be carrying briefcases and running errands into his 40s and beyond. Who were these people? he wondered. What motivated them to stay? The comic possibilities seemed endless. The middle-aged body man would have to be intensely insecure, Iannucci decided. He would be an object of mockery to his more ambitious colleagues, the butt of a million jokes. The character could easily have turned out to be cynical and pathetic.
What happened, however, was Tony Hale. He managed to transform Gary before he even landed the part, without speaking a word, at his audition.
“I remember that moment distinctly,” Iannucci told me. Hale had been asked to perform one of Gary’s signature moves: pulling items for the veep out of his big leather shoulder bag. “He did it with great care and delicacy,” Iannucci remembered. “There was a kind of sadness to it, but also a pride about every object. What struck me was the humanity of it. He was a funny character, but you weren’t laughing at him for being sad and broken. He’s very warm. You knew Gary had walked into the room.”
Hale had performed a small miracle: He smuggled tenderness into the otherwise harsh world of “Veep.” Iannucci found himself removing scenes of outright cruelty. Gary was too human, too sad, to be annihilated over and over by the show’s fire hose of vitriol. This pathos made Hale an ideal foil for Louis-Dreyfus, who performs a similar miracle with the role of Selina. Played by a lesser actor, “Veep” ’s vice president would be merely loathsome: She is false, cruel, petty, demanding, moody and hypocritical. Her smalltalk is infantilizing. (“Look at you, a grown woman with cotton candy!” she says at a North Carolina pig roast. “Pink like your cheeks.”) Her speeches are inane. (As one of her aides puts it in the new season: “This is just noise-shaped air.”) Louis-Dreyfus, however, imbues this monstrous figure with a strange charisma — a precise combination of authority and vulnerability — that somehow redeems her. We root for Selina, even to the point of wanting her to become president, a position for which she is disastrously unqualified.
Through all of Selina’s misadventures and disgraces, we never learn what political party she belongs to. Policy, in “Veep,” is very much beside the point. Its characters never even really discuss it. What they do, instead, with hyperverbal vigor, is insult one another. “Veep” ’s characters speak fluently in baroque obscenities, with seven-layer metaphors and breathtaking innovations in profanity. No one is better at insults, of course, than the vice president herself. And yet one of the show’s great paradoxes is that Selina’s facility with words exists only in the privacy of offices, hallways and back rooms; as soon as she appears in public, she becomes an inarticulate buffoon.
This is, more or less, the central joke of “Veep.” The show draws most of its comic energy from the disjunction between public and private — the threshold, which a politician must cross hundreds of times every day, from reality to image: from the insecure, petty, foul-mouthed, power-hungry, private person to the bulletproof, platitudinous, smiling public figure. Selina pivots constantly between these two worlds.
Gary is the pivot on which she makes that turn. He performs the most menial chores with loving devotion. He sets up the portable platform on which Selina stands to look taller during speeches; he squirts hand sanitizer into her palm after she shakes somebody’s hand. As she walks through a room, Gary leans down to her ear, over and over, whispering cues about the people who approach — this one plays the trumpet, that one has a glass eye, this one just gave birth to triplets. He looks like one of those toy birds, dipping and dipping and dipping into a glass of water. Gary’s giant leather shoulder bag is practically a character in itself (he calls it the Leviathan); it has 60 inner pockets that contain everything the vice president might ever need — hand sanitizer, eyedrops, wipes (scented and unscented), yogurt, ginseng, boxes of official vice-presidential M&Ms — all of which he has trained himself to retrieve without looking.
Gary is a living encyclopedia of the vice president’s body. He knows that her upper lip sweats when she’s nervous, that her stomach bloats when she drinks beer. When Selina wants to wear her red dress for her daughter’s 21st birthday party, Gary tells her that she won’t be able to wear a bra with it. When someone is about to sneeze on her, Gary leaps to block it like a Secret Service agent taking a bullet. When she has to stand up suddenly, he kneels and puts her shoes on, then straightens her skirt. For the vice president to be touched by any other character is toxic, a violation. But Gary is allowed to be constantly close. In the power-hungry world of “Veep,” this human closeness feels profound.
It’s like a marriage, but a comically, creepily sexless one. Actual encounters between the bodies of Gary and Selina — a celebratory hug, the skin-to-skin exchange of hand sanitizer — are invariably awkward. There is a virtuosic scene near the end of Season 1 in which Selina asks Gary to break up with her boyfriend for her — a completely inappropriate request that she manages to pull off with a master class in voice modulation. Louis-Dreyfus shifts, in the middle of the interaction, from the vulnerability of someone in a failing relationship to the authoritative preening of a politician at a podium. “Uhhh, Gary?” she says, her face creased with worry and pain. Gary comes scuttling over. “I need you to end it with Ted,” she says, and then — as if pulling a tool out of a shed — she tilts her head, narrows her eyes and adopts the stilted cadence of a politician discussing foreign policy: “But you need to do it very sensitively, and just make sure there aren’t any repercussions.” You can see on Gary’s face competing tides of discomfort: his rising terror of the task itself, overwhelmed by the much larger terror of refusing it. In a world of swirling opportunism and false friends, Selina knows that only Gary will never fail her. “He’d be happy if I shot him in the face,” she tells one of her staffers. The love song of Gary and Selina, discordant as it often is, is the only one she can be sure will play on.
“They’re sort of codependent,” Iannucci said. “I think Selina likes to think that Gary’s a nothing. That she doesn’t need Gary. All he does is carry her stuff around. That she’s bigger than that and she can form proper relationships with other people. But there is a part of her that knows that’s not the case. Being the political animal she is has actually destroyed her ability to form proper relationships with other people. So she almost returns to Gary as ‘the one.’ But she could never say it out loud. Because she feels that is demeaning of her. If you officially become the most powerful person in the world, then what does anyone else mean to you?
“You sort of feel, in 20 years’ time, when she’s resident in the Selina Meyer Presidential Library and writing her fifth volume of memoirs, the only one among all those people around her that will still be there will be Gary. Bringing her breakfast, or tea, which she slurps from a straw.”
In person, out of character, Hale and Louis-Dreyfus have an easy rapport. I spoke with them in Los Angeles, where they both live. The creation of “Veep” is labor-intensive — there are weeks of rehearsals, during which everyone improvises scenes and revises scripts, followed by months of filming outside Baltimore — so they spend a good portion of every year in very close quarters. During filming, Hale and Louis-Dreyfus play cards every night and sit next to one another every morning getting their makeup done. They make each other laugh a lot. (Hale is infamous, on set, for breaking, or ruining scenes by laughing; he keeps a photo, in his office, of himself and Louis-Dreyfus breaking particularly hard.)
I met Hale first. He came around a corner, wearing a suit and tie, and I was momentarily shocked. I was used to seeing him as Buster Bluth (giant glasses, hook hand) or as Gary Walsh (stooped over, whispering), but the actual Hale is tall, handsome, healthy and self-possessed, with conspicuously beautiful teeth. He was striding — very much not slinking around the edges of the room looking worried.
I asked Hale what goes into his transformation. He told me that the key to Gary’s physicality is his posture, which is of course related to lack of power. Hale is 10 inches taller than Louis-Dreyfus, and this imbalance, he said, is constantly horrifying to Gary — exactly the opposite of the way things should be. To make up for it, Gary slumps. “He is desperately trying to be below her,” Hale told me. “If he could shorten his legs for her, he would do it happily.”
Louis-Dreyfus joined us a short time later. She entered the room at a full run, like a hero in an action movie, because she was worried she had kept us waiting. She was dressed casually, in sandals and glasses, with long, wavy hair in place of her helmet-like “Veep” wig.
Hale and Louis-Dreyfus agreed that it was impossible to articulate what went into their comic chemistry. It struck them as beyond language. The best word they could think of was “trust.”
“When you put something out there, you want to know that it’s going to be backed up,” Hale said. “When you throw the ball, it’s going to be thrown back to you.”
This reminded me of one of my favorite small “Veep” moments, which involves the literal catching of an object. Selina steps into her office, holds out her purse, and — assuming, without looking, that Gary is there to take it — starts to drop it on the floor. Gary, who is actually still out in the hallway (Selina has abandoned him, midsentence), comes sprinting through the door, as if he’s been fired out of a cannon, grabbing the purse just before it falls. This wasn’t scripted — it was something that occurred to the actors in the moment, as a nonverbal exchange that would express the characters’ relationship perfectly: her assumption of his presence, his desperation to be present.
Louis-Dreyfus once referred to the comedy of “Veep” as “grout” humor. It occurs in the moments between moments: gestures, expressions, rhythms, looks. Much of it could never be written into a script. Louis-Dreyfus, in particular, is a master of these subtle, subverbal touches. She can encode an “uh” or an “uh-oh,” or the smallest clearing of the throat, with all the meaning of a page of dialogue. When you add Hale’s own physical talents — his eyes, in particular, are large and expressive (one of Selina’s staffers calls them “cow eyes”) — you get a little nonverbal symphony playing out under the surface of every conversation.
Gary is the only character on “Veep” who possesses zero linguistic skill, which means that much of Hale’s job is to make silence interesting. When Selina yells at her director of communications and storms out of the room, for instance, Gary stands there for a few seconds, eyes wide, holding a disapproving stare, making sure that even in Selina’s absence the man feels her displeasure. When Selina makes one of her outlandish off-color proclamations, Gary nods supportively, but you can see the shock in his face as he staggers backward and flees the room. “We always find lots of shots in the edit, afterward,” Iannucci told me, “where something has gone a bit wrong, deliberately, in the script, and you can see Gary in the background, having a mental breakdown behind his eyes.”
Gary’s constant sexual discomfort points to one of the show’s special pleasures: the delight it takes in reversing the usual polarities of gender and power. This is a large part of Selina and Gary’s dynamic: the small woman, foul-mouthed and swaggering, shadowed everywhere by a meek, doting, very tall man.
The relationship between Gary and Selina, and the series as a whole, reached a hysterical climax at the end of Season 3, inside a shabby bathroom. Just when Selina seems to have hit her political nadir — her nastiness has been made scandalously public, and her presidential campaign has cratered — she learns of an impossible reversal of fortune: The president, for personal reasons, has decided to step down, which means that she is about to become the most powerful person in the world. She excuses herself, in shock, and disappears into the bathroom of a community center, where she happens to be on a campaign stop. (She is meeting, opportunistically, with a pair of Syrian refugees.)
The person who comes to check on her is, of course, Gary.
“Ma’am?” he says, knocking. “Ma’am?”
Gary enters to see Selina, at the moment of her apotheosis, standing between a toilet and a bright yellow mop bucket.
“Hi, ma’am,” Gary says. “Are you all right?” His affection is fully in bloom; he could be a father checking on his sick child.
Selina is clutching her hands together, smiling crazily.
“Gary,” she whispers. “I’m gonna be president.”
Gary is the first person she has told. He has no reason to believe her and takes on the air of a kindergarten teacher encouraging the impossible dreams of a 5-year-old.
“Of course you are,” he says. “I mean there’s always hope, ma’am. We’ve got plenty of hope in this world.”
“No, no, no!” Selina says. “POTUS is gonna resign and I’m about to become president” — and then, in uproarious disbelief — “of America!” Louis-Dreyfus’s delivery of this line is one of my favorite things in the show: It’s as if the word “America” is a small but wonderful bird that has come nonsensically flapping out of her mouth.
Gary’s giant cow eyes narrow, and his forehead wrinkles slightly. He looks as if his spinal cord has just been severed, as if all understanding has fled his body forever. And then he starts to cry, in gentle clucking whimpers. As Selina attempts to comfort him, Gary’s nose starts to bleed. “When I get excited, my nose bleeds!” he shriek-weeps, tilting his head back, and as Selina ushers him over toward the toilet, Gary, for the first time ever, surrenders his magic bag. Selina takes it from him, and he reclines, vulnerable, like an overturned tortoise, waiting for the newly crowned leader of the free world to help him stop the flow of his bodily fluids. It is a beautiful inversion: at precisely the moment of her political triumph, the selfish one becomes selfless, and the servant finds himself being served. Gary and Selina begin to cackle with uncontrollable joy.
There is no toilet paper, so Selina ends up sitting on the bathroom floor, rooting through Gary’s bag in search of tissues. Instead, she finds several other unlikely items — a giant magnifying glass, a handful of tampons, and, finally, a book called “Bicycles.” On the cover is a picture of a woman with a big red bike.
“Why is there a bicycle book?” Selina asks, and she and Gary collapse further into laughter. “Gary! Seriously!”
The blood is still pouring from Gary’s nose, it has covered the bottom half of his face, he is rocking back and forth on the toilet, but somehow he manages to find just enough breath to yelp out an answer: “I love bicycles!”
Selina takes this at face value and continues her search for tissues, which Gary eventually shoves up his nose. The book is not spoken of again.
But let’s actually consider “Bicycles”: It is a real book, but it is not really about bicycles. It is a 2009 collection of poems by Nikki Giovanni dealing almost entirely with love, with special emphasis on the complexities thereof, including the paradoxical distance — physical and emotional — inherent in romantic intimacy. It is raw and hopeful and amused and sad. Why would Gary have such a book in his bag? It is a rare peek into his private world.
“Bicycles” takes on a whole new resonance if you read it in reference to Gary and Selina — if you imagine Gary reading the poems in bed at night, after a long day of political misadventures, committing certain lines to memory, nodding sadly to himself. Surely, for instance, he would recognize himself in the poem “I Would Not Be Different”:
Every now and then
We all fall in love
With a totally inappropriate
And I would not be different
And in the poem “Deal or No Deal,” portions of which may as well be tattooed on Gary’s very large forehead:
I know you cannot go
Unless you are willing
For love or money
To make a fool
Where else does the ecstasy
Gary would move on from these poems to others called “I Provide” and “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “Friends and Lovers,” and perhaps he would even whisper into Selina’s ear, while she dozed next to him on Air Force II, these lines from “A Song For You”: “I perch/On your heart/I whisper in your ear.” It seems possible that “Bicycles” was ghostwritten, as a kind of very deep fan fiction, by Armando Iannucci himself. Because this is what “Bicycles,” and perhaps ultimately “Veep,” really is: a study in intimacy — the odd shapes it can assume, the comforts it offers, its risks, costs, rewards and limits. And this is the lesson of Gary and Selina, if we can presume to learn anything from such a ridiculous pair. The failures of intimacy are obvious and nearly constant, but they are small, local and perishable. The success of intimacy is harder to see — it is like an atmosphere — but it is global and enduring. It happens on its own time scale, independent of the failures. True intimacy, to borrow a metaphor from a debased realm, has no term limits. Ω
[Sam Anderson is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine; prior to that he was a book critic for The Times. Anderson received a BA (English) from Southern Oregon niversity, an MA (English) from Louisiana State University, and an MFA (creative writing) from New York University.]
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