"Deep" and "sitcom" are not words often used in the same sentence.
But a visit to the "VEEP" soundstage in Columbia gave a glimpse of the larger cultural power of this savvy satire from HBO, returning for its second season Sunday night. I also came away dazzled by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who last year won an Emmy as best comedic actress for her portrayal of Vice President Selina Meyer.
"VEEP" drills as far down into the state of the national psyche as any TV comedy has in the past 30 years. This is the one series currently on prime-time TV that speaks to what all the lost jobs and lost homes have done to our collective psyche since the Great Recession of 2008. It helps us laugh for 30 minutes a week not only at the craven and dysfunctional politicians who seem to betray our trust in Washington every single day, but also at the frightened citizens many of us have become — workers and managers wondering when another round of layoffs might arrive.
The scene I saw filmed in Columbia is part of what will air as the penultimate of 10 episodes during the next three months. It involves furloughing workers during a government shutdown.
The real Washington is in sequestration today, which is a kind of politicized D.C.-Lite version of a full shutdown. The White House is still operating, but tours for the public are suspended because of the expense. The idea is the same: There's gridlock in Washington because the politicians are too busy serving their own interests rather than doing the work they were sent there to do.
"As you can see, we are in shutdown, so I can only have a skeleton staff," Selina tells her team as preamble to rolling out the chopping block.
They are all gathered in her office: Amy (Anna Chlumsky), her chief of staff; Mike (Matt Walsh), her burned-out press spokesman; Dan (Reid Scott), her pretty-boy strategist; Gary (Tony Hale), her neurotic right-hand man; and Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) the vice president's tightly wrapped executive assistant.
And they are all scheming like crazy to hang onto their jobs — except for Mike, who's straight-up groveling.
In the name of avoiding spoilers, I won't reveal who gets laid off. But one staffer does a happy dance when he finds out one victim is a rival instead of him.
Selina glares at the happy dancer and hisses the victim's name prefaced by the word "poor" into his beaming face. Instantly, his smile turns to a super-sized sad-face frown as he echoes her words in a funereal voice, saying, "Yes, poor ___."
But even Selina doesn't really feel the "poor" part. She'd let them all go in a second to keep her No. 2 spot in the administration.
On one level, the hypocrisy can make you want to gag — but not before you first smile at the turn-on-a-dime phony reaction and obvious relief on the part of those who dodged the latest bullet.
"There isn't a single character in the show who is thinking first about the impact of what he or she is doing on the country or voters," says Frank Rich, the New York magazine columnist who is one of the sitcom's executive producers.
"It's all about how you can be self-aggrandizing or enhance your own position of power," he adds.
And yet, for all their pathetic pettiness and craven self-interest, these are not characters designed to be simply loathed, says series creator and executive producer Armando Iannucci.
"There's vulnerability and fragility to them that makes you connect with them, particularly Selina," the Scottish-born creator of "In the Loop" says.
"When we started with this role, there was the potential for Selina to become a kind of goofy, incompetent idiot," he continues. "That's very much what we wanted to stay away from. And Julia brings a kind of steel and a resolve. She's happy to be testy and yet you still feel for her because she fleshes Selina out. She gives her three dimensions. You can see why Selina does the things she does."
As much as intelligence and talent, it's hard work that won Louis-Dreyfus that best comedy actress Emmy last year.
"If we're up at 3 o'clock in the morning in Baltimore trying to get something done, she'll still be there suggesting this way of doing it or coming up with a funny idea for us to try," Iannucci says. "Julia's not just grown into the character, but she's grown the character in a very intelligent way. Plus, she can fall over and bump into things, which is always a bonus."
Louis-Dreyfus, who is in practically every scene of the sitcom, did take after take of the layoff sequence — never leaving the set and joining in the improvisational banter among Iannucci and writer-producers like Simon Blackwell. Iannucci's style of creation is one of the most creative and on-your-feet-demanding I have ever seen. And Louis-Dreyfus is totally engaged in it.