What HBO's Veep Gets Right About Politics

Politicians aren't special.


Every television series based in the White House inevitably has to grapple with one fundamental question: what motivates politicians?

And it's HBO's hit comedy Veep, now entering its sixth season, that's actually figured it out.

Almost two decades ago, The West Wing presented one answer in the form of President Jed Bartlet, whom creator Aaron Sorkin imagined as a straight-talking statesman and public servant who transcends partisan politics and puts the common good of the American people above all else.

If The West Wing is idealistic White House fan fiction, Netflix's breakout series, House of Cards, is its dark reflection.

House of Cards imagines a Washington, D.C. in which corruption and blackmail are the murky waters in which politicians swim. In this world, only the predators survive, and Frank Underwood and his wife and co-conspirator Claire devour anything in their paths.

But it's Veep, that actually gets American politics right. It doesn't fantasize that politicians are flawed but heroic figures, nor the inverse that they are inherently sinister monsters. Veep proposes something more radical: Politicians aren't special.

Political theorists call this simple insight, that self-interest is the driving force of politics, public choice theory—a theory Nobel Prize-Winning economist James Buchanan called "politics without romance."

Watch the video above for the full explanation. Approximately 4:30. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Meredith Bragg.

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  1. There was an interview with the head writers of this show, essentially lamenting the fact that their show is “starting” to mirror the reality of DC. Which I thought was odd, because I loved VEEP due to the fact that this is how I see politicians in general. Apparently the creators didn’t agree with that idea. Now I’m afraid that they’ll make a 180 turn and go full Parks and Rec…….

    1. Well the writers must be a little jilted or something. Because as much as I love VEEP, it’s still a Hollywood blue show, Selena Meyer after all is a democrat; like all things left, they are still suffering from butt hurt. And I’ve never seen it but I’d wager my life that House of Cards is about a republican.

      1. Nope, Frank is a democrat.

      2. I don’t think that they ever really reveal Selena’s party in the show (or I’ve completely ignored it because it’s irrelevant to the jokes). Frank Underwood in HoC is a Democrat, though I believe that was a very calculated choice on the writers part much like Sorkin making West Wing about a Republican president.

        1. While they don’t say either I believe that on election night all of Selina’s states were coloured blue and there was some mention of her easily winning states that in real life are Democratic strongholds. That may not mean anything given that this show takes place in a fictional realm but I’m throwing it out there anyway 😉

        2. Jeb Bartlett was a Democrat.

      3. Shit… Whelp. This is why I don’t gamble.

      4. I assume you’ve already killed yourself.

        I like the original British House of Cards a lot more than the American one. That one is about a conservative politician, but it actually portrays conservative ideas in a fairly positive light.

        1. Zeb, you are absolutely correct …..

          The original is better primarily because it is ‘focused’, i.e. shorter – only three series..

          Being originally from the UK I saw the original show ‘live’. I have this great 3 disc show and when I play it for my non -UK family I try to explain the background of UK politics.

          Unfortunately the obsession of a corrupt ‘party trans’ politician with Margaret eventually overwhelms the series.

          But the confinement to a timespan that embraces the demise of the ‘Mad Witch’ Diana results in a story that is, IMO, difficult to translate to our politics.

    2. I imagine it is how the creator sees politicians. I think he left the show in part to go work on a comedy about Stalin, so that should be fun.

      Plus, the whole “DC’s getting so crazy it’s no longer satire!” sentiment has been their marketing line for years.

      What’s funny to me is that, as I understand it, this joke in In The Loop wound up being an accurate of the Obama WH (and probably would have for Clinton’s, if her campaign is an indication). Something that Veep‘s current writers may not admit.

      1. The are also a lot of boring psychos in DC.

    3. There can be no nuance in the Trump era. You have to make it known in the most clumsy way possible where you stand on our current president. I half expect Veep to turn unfunny this season, stumbling over themselves to make themselves the one show to speak truth to power.

      1. I am worried there’ll be an episode where she has some great progressive victory that shames the incompetent administration that replaced her.

        I don’t think they’ll do that, but it could happen…

      2. I hope not.

        But given how the last season ended, I really have no idea where the plot goes next.

        1. This latest episode taking place in George during elections, whether intentional or not, parodies Clinton’s foreign donor scandals to a tee.

  2. Excellent video, Zach. Great narrative.

  3. too bad that VEEP isn’t funny or enjoyable

    1. Well actually it is. Perhaps not to you.

    2. Tell me, you like to have sex and you like to travel?

      Then you can fuck off.

    3. Hey, a new troll. I must have missed your entrance, first time farting around here or is that just a new mask 🙂

  4. The DNC emails revealed just how ordinary our ruling class is.

    It reminds me of being snooted by the help.

    1. It was amazing how when Hillary’s and the DNC emails were released just how much like Selena Myers administration the whole thing looked

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  7. As true as it may be, it’s hard to get people excited about Public Choice theory. Politicians to many people are either saviors or demons, depending upon which side of the political divide they’re on. And the apathetics don’t care enough to even think much about the character of politicians.

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