To see Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's hope-it-stays-hysterical Veep is to think: How did they know? How did they — first Larry David, then the rest of Team Seinfeld — know that she was so funny? And HOW she was so funny, with her knack for making genuinely strange women seem perfectly normal?
There's little evidence of it on her brief Saturday Night Live tenure. Louis-Dreyfus was all of 21, an heiress who was hired out of Second City into some of the very worst years of SNL, years that produced, oddly, the single biggest star in the show's history in Eddie Murphy and proof that SNL was a bad fit for writer Larry David.
But he saw something in Louis-Dreyfus that the public was denied, and you can make a case that her Elaine Benes on Seinfeld was as important a female character for '90s college kids as Buffy, Dana Scully, or anyone on Sex and the City.
While I am sure a lot of people watched The New Adventures of Old Christine, I've never met any of them, so it is thrilling for us Benes-philes to see her return to playing a true oddball. Essentially an American version of British writer Armando Iannucci's political sitcom The Thick of It and its movie spin-off In the Loop, Veep is a smack-talking balm for folks who found The West Wing too self-important (and the characters too unrealistically witty) by half.
Louis-Dreyfus is Selina Meyer, a former senator who backed into the vice president role, as most do, after her own White House bid floundered. Her staff is perpetually putting out fires and trying to make her relevant. The closest connection to the source material is the excellent Anna Chlumsky as Amy, Selina's chief-of-staff, essentially a more powerful version of the State Department staffer Liza she played in Loop. She has the most experience with Iannucci's clattering, nasty chatter. Selina to Dan, the smarmy aide who is jockeying for a communications gig in the VP's office: "Is there anything you can't do?" Amy, under her breath: "Foreplay, direct sunlight." Like many in her position before her both real (Rahm Emanuel) and imagined (I still want to be Leo McGarry when I grow up), Chlumsky is the straw that stirs the show.
But everyone is on point. Matt Walsh plays mustachioed communication director Mike McClintock, who seemed like a slightly less obscene version of Peter Capaldi's In the Loop spin doctor Malcom Tucker in the pilot, but quickly gets demoted to guy-with-imaginary-dog by episode three. Arrested Development vet Tony Hale is a scream as Selina's body man, Gary, who gives Selina relevant info three seconds before she has to start a conversation and is willing to (pointlessly) take a sneeze for her. Then there's the faintly terrifying Jonah (Timothy Simmons), a.k.a. The Guy Who Works in the White House and Talks About it All The Time.
Slightly more so than Loop or Thick, the politics in Veep play a backseat to the string of one-liner insults and scorn that has become the Iannucci trademark. He's also probably a little less familiar with American politics, but the corn starch utensils vs. plastics idea in the pilot is both genius and leads to a sight gag both perfect and completely expected, which is sort of the best kind.
Even though episodes two and three are not quite as torrentially funny as the pilot, it hangs together for a couple of reasons. The cast is clearly having a blast with Iannucci's invective, which doesn't have the American need for hugging and learning. Selina on a hastily revised speech: "This has been pencil-fucked completely?" Mike: "Yes, front and back, very little romance." Selina: "What's left here? I have 'hello' and prepositions."
And then there is, of course, the paradox of the vice presidency: You don't have much power, but you are always capable of screwing up publicly as much as privately. And it's exactly this sort of absurdity that Louis-Dreyfus is great at. From blowing what should have been a very easy trip a frozen yogurt shop to utterly ignoring her daughter, you can laugh at her without thinking she is being foolish. Like, say, Diane Keaton, she's just kind of odd, and that's made all the difference.