There are good reasons to be cynical about Washington, D.C., and there are bad reasons to be cynical about Washington, D.C. Two new shows — one ("Veep") satirical, one ("Scandal") not — offer plenty of both. And, as is so often the case, the satire strikes closer to home.
ABC's Thursday night one-hour drama "Scandal," the latest from "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rimes, centers on Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a "fixer" of problems whose former boss (and lover) is now president of the United States. Each week she has a new scandal to handle and a new client to aid in keeping their name out of the news. She's also frequently drawn back to her one-time boss, working him out of jams in ways ridiculous and sublime.
The scandals in "Scandal" are pat and obvious and, frankly, no reason to be worried about the state of our union.
Take, for instance, the trouble in episode number two: A conservative judge has been nominated to the Supreme Court and, in the course of a separate case involving a high-profile "D.C. Madam" busted for running a prostitution ring, it is revealed that this jurist was among her many VIP clients.
Defiant, the judge rejects the accusation and vows to fight — he has worked his whole life for this moment and won't let some tawdry smears he knows to be untrue derail his nomination.
The judge is right — he didn't knowingly visit a prostitute. That doesn't change the fact that he looks guilty, and in "Scandal's" D.C. appearances are all that matter.
In order to get her guy off the hook Olivia engages in gross corruption, telling all of the Madam's previous clients — senators, congressmen, government lawyers, etc. — that their secret trysts would be made public if the judge's "indiscretion" was divulged. Strings get pulled, prosecuting attorneys get muzzled, and bing-bang-boom, justice is perverted in order to keep the rich and powerful out of trouble.
This scenario is, honestly, a silly thing to get worked up about. Not because it's not flagrantly unethical, but because it doesn't ring true.
Take it from a career D.C. journo: No such scandal would stay secret for long. With that many moving parts and moving people, someone somewhere would have leaked something to the press.
It might be comforting to blame Washington's dysfunction on a nefarious cabal in the upper echelons of the federal government, but it's delusional.
"Veep," on the other hand, provides ample illustration of why the nation is headed off a cliff.
The new half-hour comedy from HBO is a satirical look at life inside the vice president's office. Selina Myer (the always-great Julia Louis-Dreyfus) serves in the corridors of almost-power, spending most of her day hoping for a call from the president and coping with the incompetence of her minions. Press secretaries and body men and other aides all stumble around trying to keep her from committing gaffe after gaffe.
It's the minions, however, that really provide a window into the depravity of life in the imperial city.
What you'll come to recognize if you watch "Veep" is the self-centered status-seeking that defines a certain class of government employee. The ones who are good at their jobs are the ones who are good at leaking damaging stories, climbing the social ladder and covering their own rear ends.
Most representative of this particular genus is Dan Egan (Reid Scott), who joins the Veep's team in the first episode after he leaks a damaging story about his old boss (whose daughter he was dating; not so much any more). Vulgar, vicious, and vituperative, "Veep" strikes at the heart of what makes D.C.'s hacks and flacks tick. The show's creator, Armando Iannucci, previously got at these quirks in "In the Loop" and you can feel echoes of that BBC film here.
"In the Loop," follows the run-up to a joint British and American conflict with an unnamed Arab nation. It quickly becomes clear that war is foolhardy — yet inevitable. The machinery, once set in motion, can't be stopped: Staffers, politicians, and the press all have their reputations to maintain. There was no conspiracy to take the nation to war — just a confederacy of dunces.
Though I reject that view of the Iraq War, it is far closer to the truth than the anti-capitalist paranoia of leftists like Michael Moore, who saw business-based conspiracies driving the march to war.
In the nation's capital, conspiracies a la "Scandal" are rarely necessary. Simple incompetence and career-building, a la "Veep," will usually suffice.