Selina Meyer, the vice-president of the United States, is brusque, myopic, dismissive, self-centered, easily distracted, and quickly offended, and to a degree that often causes her to miss the policy forest because she’s fixated on the political trees. She is, by all accounts, an unlikable character. But the way Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays Selina (with a hat tip to the writing of Veep creator Armando Iannucci and his creative team), the character is, improbably, immensely appealing: Meyer may be a little monster of egocentrism, but the actress plays her without ego.
Like the co-stars that orbit her like asteroids around a volatile sun, Louis-Dreyfus makes Meyer seem so life-size. We don’t look at her and think only, “what an idiot” or “what a horrible person” (though we do think such things — that’s part of the fun of this scathing comedy). We also think, “Yeah, that’s probably how I’d behave under such a high-pressure situation, because people are people, and responsibility doesn’t stop them from being human.” We’re also aware that Selina is a woman in a still-testosterone-addled world — that, to quote one of her memorable phrases from season two, she’s existing along “the axis of dick.” Just as Selina has to be twice as good as any man to achieve a similarly visible result, Louis-Dreyfus, the actress, has to be twice as oblivious to the impact of Selina’s rampaging ego to get a laugh out of us. To do otherwise might make Louis-Dreyfus’s performance feel like a form of special pleading — as if she were trying to sand the rough edges off Selina to protect some hypothetical leading-lady image, or to make a specious sociological point that doesn’t have anything to do with the story she and the other actors are trying to tell.
“That’s like tryin’ to use a croissant as a fuckin’ dildo,” rages Selina, berating a colleague with one of Iannucci’s trademark surreal metaphors, “It doesn’t do the job, and it makes a fuckin’ mess!” What makes the line more than merely quotable is Louis-Dreyfus’s entitled expression, as if Selina is (a) speaking from firsthand experience, and/or (b) assuming that her audience will agree completely that this is the most brilliant and illuminating comparison any living human could possibly make, and that they should be grateful they’re alive to hear it. “I’ve met some people — real people, okay?” Selina says of the voting public. “And let me tell you, a lot of them are fuckin’ idiots.” She sounds cosmically put-out as she says this, as if she’s been asked to donate an organ every single day of her life.
Louis-Dreyfus’s apparent belief that in Veep’s comedic universe, more is better — more energy, more vitriol, more pettiness, more absurdity — might be the greatest holdover from her performance as Elaine Benes on Seinfeld. Like Veep, Seinfeld was a study of selfish people run amok. Most of the Seinfeld characters were people you’d probably loathe in real life, but when you look back on the series circa 2013, Louis-Dreyfus’s performance seems the most daring of the bunch, because she’s the lone woman in a core cast of men and her character rivals them all in loathsomeness, yet the actress behaves as if she is oblivious to this fact in every way, save awareness of certain biological particulars. If there was a memo warning that women in leading sitcom roles shouldn’t be too abrasive, Louis-Dreyfus must have torn it up to make spitballs. When Elaine exclaims, “Get out!” it’s often growled lustily, with pop-eyed joy, as if she’s possessed by a happy demon. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a shove so explosive that it can knock its target to the floor. Elaine doesn’t mean to erupt like a petite volcano — it’s just who she is, and anybody who knows Elaine should know better than to stand close while delivering astonishing news. I think about Elaine’s “Get out!” explosions every time I watch Louis-Dreyfus on Veep. Selina’s theme could also be, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”