Julia Louis Dreyfus and Tony Hale in HBO's "Veep." (Bill Gray, HBO )
Armando Iannucci's droll, fleet "Veep," which premieres Sunday on HBO and stars Julia Louis-Dreyfusas Selina Meyer, vice president of the United States, has nothing to do with Sarah Palin, who once came close to occupying that post and bears a minor resemblance to the star. It is, rather, an Americanization of Iannucci's fitfully ongoing 2005 BBC series "The Thick of It" and its spun-off 2009 film "In the Loop," whose protagonists are minor ministers in the U.K. government, and which make comedy from the place where power and powerlessness, ambition and limitation overlap.
Written and directed by the same hands that crafted those earlier works — with former New York Times columnist Frank Rich along as an executive producer to help with the translation — it has, like its cousins, the feel of a fly-on-the-wall documentary without being presented as one. This distinguishes it from"The Office" or"Parks and Recreation," but puts it in the august tradition of "The Larry Sanders Show."
It feels as if there's been some research done, which is, after all, a mark of good writing. The feints and dodges Selina uses to keep the world at bay (the protective, heads-down "widow walk," or the "brush past," an accidental-on-purpose substanceless meeting in which she gives a senator's chief of staff "a smile to take back to his boss") feel drawn from life, even as they sound like things that might have sprung from the head of Larry David. Selina's description of a photo op as going "to meet some regular normals" also has a ring of horrible likeliness to it.
As in "The Thick of It," none of the politicians is labeled with party affiliations, or even a clear-cut ideology. If this is less than true to the current state of our polarized politics, this is, after all, less a show about politics than about politicking, and with a nip here and a tuck there, "Veep" might be easily refashioned into a piece about a movie producer or a restaurateur.
Selina is surrounded, often literally, by an internally competitive, score-keeping staff that, in the sitcom way, doesn't quite seem up to the job. ("The level of incompetence in this office is staggering," even Selina can say.) Her helpers include Tony Hale as her hovering "body man," feeding her situationally relevant trivia and supplying her with hand sanitizer, and Matt Walsh as a press officer who wants to know as little as possible in order to preserve his own plausible deniability.
But she needs them too: "I think I did the right thing," she tells them at one point, "but I just need you to confirm that I did the right thing," and at another she upbraids her chief of staff (Anna Chlumsky, who also appeared in "In the Loop" and is, one might say, the least tainted character here), "I didn't have it covered, and it's your job to know that if I say I have it covered I don't have it covered, and you cover me."
To many millions of"Seinfeld"fans — and to the fewer millions, but millions still, who followed her onto"The New Adventures of Old Christine"— it may be stating the obvious, but it seems worth repeating that Louis-Dreyfus is one of the medium's great comedians. There is a marvelous energy to her work and in her person, which is not exactly slapstick but makes the small package that contains it visibly buck and fizz.
Even if you don't particularly feel for Selina — you don't root for her, particularly, or against her — there is continual pleasure in watching the actress make her go. In one beautifully thrown fit here, little explosions of rage escape her best attempts at restraint; later she half-glows with happiness on hearing that the president may be close to death, freeing her from the cul-de-sac of her own office. (It's not hard to find Elaine Benes in these alternations of hard-boiled cynicism and delighted, if usually premature, self-satisfaction.)
"What have I been missing here?" she asks, visiting an old Senate colleague (Kate Burton, sharp as always).
"Power," comes the reply.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)