Veep returned to HBO this season a much-improved show. Where last season, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seemed like a talentless flake with nothing but contempt for public service, this year, the show seems to have followed the same path as NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which began by portraying its main character, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as an incompetent object of ridicule but found that a more efficient means of ridiculing the problems of government was to make her a champion of right in a blinkered system. This year, Selina turns out to be pretty good at a process she thinks little of, stumping for candidates in an otherwise hopeless midterm election, and that success wins her some real influence in a policy area. And Veep‘s satire is sharper for having a wider target area than the Veep herself.
I’m glad to see the show appears to be hitting its stride, but Veep‘s return also raises a larger question. Given that the presidency is the highest office in the land, the seat of the greatest political and moral dilemmas, and the job that places the most strain and restrictions on the personal life and the family of the person who holds it, why are our contemporary political shows so fixated on the Vice Presidency, a comparatively minor office, instead?
This obsession stretches across comedy and drama. In Veep, the invisibility of the president has become a running, Waiting For Godot-like joke. Parks and Recreation snagged a guest appearance from Vice President Joe Biden, and made it out to seem like Leslie Knope was even more floored by the prospect of meeting him than she might have been to be in touch with President Obama himself. Scandal, the rare show that has the president as a main character, also spends substantial time on his vice president, a social conservative and devout Christian who effectively stages a coup while the president himself recovers from an assassination attempt. And House of Cards featured as its narrative endgame disgruntled Democratic Congressman Frank Underwood manipulating the Vice President into resigning so he could run for his old job as governor of Pennsylvania so he could then maneuver a himself into being appointed Vice President, a job that the show has suggested comes with little real power or influence, and would require Frank to work closely with the President, who Frank has come to despise after he reneged on a promise to appoint Frank Secretary of State. So what is it about this significantly symbolic job that’s made pop culture more interested in it than even the presidency?
For one thing, the Vice Presidency is an interesting place to explore the resentments of people who have finished in second place in the running for their party’s nomination, and the difficulties of building a coalition government within the White House itself. On Scandal, Vice President Sally Langston (Kate Burton) is a religious conservative who has tethered her career to the presidency of a man who is significantly more moderate than she is, to the point that she finds some of his policies distasteful, and finds herself choking down bile in an attempt to wait out the Fitzgerald Grant administration in the hopes of an endorsement when she tries to run again. When Grant was incapacitated by an assassination attempt and Sally became acting president, she functionally organized a coup, acting as if Grant was dead and she’d be occupying the presidency permanently. It was a dark take on the idea that the president’s most difficult foes might actually be in his own party, and an interesting one, given the positive relationship that President Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton built after an exceptionally bitter primary campaign. But if you’re writing a soap opera, it’s easier to get drama out of continued bitterness and clashing ambition than out of growing mutual respect and comity.