The Critic

Review: HBO's 'Veep' Is a Work-Life Conflict Comedy


Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in “Veep”

Photograph courtesy HBO

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in “Veep”

There’s no work-life balance in the office of Vice President Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the HBO (TWX) comedy Veep, available in its entirety on HBO on Demand. There’s only work. Her chief of staff, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), exaggerates her father’s illness so she can visit him in the hospital without blowback. Meyer’s director of communications, Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), invents a pet dog so he can leave work at a reasonable hour. None of Meyer’s underlings has a spouse or family, and they inevitably ruin romantic relationships because they’re so wrapped up in their job.

Veep is a satire—its creator, Armando Iannucci, a Scot who specializes in political comedy, was nominated for an Oscar for his 2009 screenplay In the Loop—and so of course it goes overboard. Many real-life politicians and chief executive officers have outside interests and fulfilling personal lives. But there’s truth in Veep’s depiction of the massive time commitment it takes to be a leader, something that, surprisingly, gets overlooked in the conversation about parents and high-level work. In Lean In, Facebook (FB) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg gripes about the leadership-and-ambition gap between men and women. She says this is, in part, because women want families and think they can’t move up the ladder after they have kids the way men do. Sandberg blithely advises other parents to do as she does—she often leaves work for a 6 p.m. dinner with her family.

Veep, on the other hand, hilariously shows how often the conflicts between work and life can’t be resolved. As Laura Bennett said in the New Republic, the second season of Veep is “refreshing in the way it defies feminist dogmas about how to represent women in power.” Meaning Meyer’s vanity, vulgarity, and insane work ethic are fully on display. And instead of—to use a tired phrase—having it all, her high-stakes job often leaves her family in the lurch.

This is best illustrated in the second-season episode “Andrew,” named after Meyer’s smarmy ex-husband. On the same day she’s hosting a fancy 21st birthday party for her daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), Meyer has to broker a debt-reduction plan with House Majority Leader Mary King (Mimi Kennedy) that will avert a government shutdown. The majority leader has an allergy attack during their meeting and insists Meyer pick up the discussion later. Meyer says she can’t because of the celebration.

“Well, don’t go,” King responds.

“I can’t not go to her birthday. Would you miss your son’s civil union ceremony?” Meyer asks.

“I did,” King says matter-of-factly.

So Meyer invites the majority leader to the party, and a bunch of sober number crunchers comes along with her. Although they manage to close the deal, Meyer ruins the party by asking the DJ to put on some “chillaxing music” so she can hear the majority leader speak. The episode ends with Catherine in tears in the back seat of the limo, an uneaten birthday cake in her lap.

Meyer’s failings as a mother are also on display in “First Response.” Meyer, Catherine, and Andrew are doing an at-home TV interview with a Katie Couric-type reporter named Janet Ryland (a brilliant Allison Janney). When Ryland asks Catherine about favorite family vacations, she mentions a trip to Disneyland—one she took with the housekeeper, Rosa, and Rosa’s family. “I think knowing that my mom had to be available 24 hours a day really taught me not to be too demanding as a child,” Catherine says.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, famously wrote about the total lack of flexibility in vaunted government positions in an article for the Atlantic last summer. As she pointed out, this is not just a woman’s issue, and Veep is evenhanded in showing that the men who sign up for this life find it as difficult as the women do.

Clearly, not everyone wants such an all-consuming career. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend that people who do can make family a priority. It’s wonderful that Sandberg and a few other executives make it home for dinner. But Meyer’s never going to get there. As she brutally puts it in one episode: “I’m canceling the lunch with Catherine that was supposed to prove there’s nothing more important than Catherine, because something more important than Catherine has come up.”

Grose is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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