April 13, 2017

Sour, cynical and insanely funny: 'Veep' returns to HBO

And a lotta love for Carol Burnett, who performed Tuesday night at the Academy of Music

Politics is a particularly upsetting and demoralizing realm these days, which makes Sunday’s sixth-season premiere of HBO’s “Veep” especially propitious.

For those who don’t subscribe to the pay-for-play cable TV outlet, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-headlined sitcom is a sour, cynical look at the behind-the-scenes chaos surrounding Selina Meyer, who began the series as the nation’s first female vice president. She subsequently became the first female president; Sunday finds her starting life as the first female ex-president.

If you’re thinking “West Wing,” which focused on the devoted group of committed and passionate intellectuals who counseled a gravitas-laden POTUS (played by Martin Sheen), allow me to disabuse you of that notion: The NBC series much more akin to “Veep” in tone and characterizations was “The Office,” which likewise concerned itself with a group of self-absorbed and clueless psychophants, personality-disorder victims and everyday nincompoops.

On “West Wing,” the characters mostly wanted to save the world. On “Veep,” they mostly want to save their butts.

And put away any comparisons to “House of Cards.” As an acquaintance of mine whose job puts him smack-dab in the middle of D.C. wonkery and douchebaggery put it, people want to believe the depraved skullduggery portrayed in “House of Cards” is a virtual documentary, but the infighting and suffocating incompetence of the “Veep” crew is a far more accurate depiction of life in the nation’s capital.

Maybe, but there’s no way real life in The Swamp is anywhere near as funny as it is on “Veep.” The writing, which takes the art of the insult to dizzying new (and foul-mouthed) heights, is as sharp and consistently on-point as that of any TV series in history. Just one muttered-under-the-breath aside on “Veep” is likely funnier than any joke on any other program currently running.

Making the words soar, sing and sting is an ensemble whose aggregate talent would be impossible to quantify.

Louis-Dreyfus’ remarkable Outstanding Lead Actress in A Comedy Series Emmy streak—currently at five straight—speaks for itself, but she is merely first among an incredible cast of equals. There’s also Tony Hale, whose neurotically obsequious Gary Walsh (Selina’s Guy Friday or “body man”) has already delivered him two Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmys. And Gary Cole’s emotionless numbers geek Kent Davison. And Kevin Dunn’s Greek-chorus chief-of-staff, Ben Cafferty. And Anna Chlumsky’s jittery Amy Brookheimer all are a joy to watch week after week.

But I have a real soft spot for Timothy Simmons, and series part-timer Dan Bakkedahl. As human punching bag (metaphorically speaking) Jonah Ryan, the former does the best job of simultaneously evincing contempt and pity I’ve seen since Jeffrey Tambor’s brilliant turn as talk show second-banana Hank Kingsley on “The Larry Sanders Show.” The latter’s recurring role as sewer-mouthed Rep. Roger Furlong has me in stitches virtually every time he speaks.

As far as language and content goes, “Veep” is as, shall we say, liberal, as any series ever. Nothing is out-of-bounds, from its infinite variations on the “F”-word, promiscuous, off-color references to male and female anatomy and bad taste takes on the poor, infirm and generally downtrodden.

But in the hands of such talented folks on both sides of the camera, these words are pure poetry.

Make that insanely hilarious poetry.

Love unlimited for Burnett

If only they could bottle and distribute globally the love and warmth that filled the Academy of Music Tuesday, this would truly be a wonderful world.

The occasion was the appearance by TV legend Carol Burnett, who spent the better part of two hours delighting the—ahem—rather mature audience that packed the venerable auditorium with tales of her life and career.

The audience responded with so much unabashed affection that it seemed you could grab handfuls of it out of the air."

With a relatively limited, but deft, use of video clips, a killer way with ad-libs and a seemingly unending supply of hilarious anecdotes (like the time she pretended to make out with Julie Andrews in a hotel elevator lobby) Burnett provided a memorable evening of sentimentality, nostalgia and genuine belly laughs. The audience responded with so much unabashed affection that it seemed you could grab handfuls of it out of the air.

Burnett turns 84 on April 26, but she displayed the energy, poise and mental agility of someone half her age, and reminded the crowd of why she – Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore formed the Big Three of 20th-century female television comics.

If, by some miracle, Burnett books an encore performance, do not miss it!


Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), 104.9 FM, WWDBAM.com, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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