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'Veep' adds to 'Girls' night on HBO

You don't want to be too effusive with praise for "real people" when you're around Vice President Selina Meyer, the "Veep" of HBO's wittily smart-aleck new sitcom (premiering Sunday night at 10 o'clock).

"I've met some people" she says, in self-defense. "Real people. And a lot of them are f------ idiots."

Actually, others' suspicions of the veep's relationships with "real people" are perfectly well-taken. Real people -- voters, for instance, or those whose lives are actually affected by Washington hoo-ha -- are mostly a metaphor for the veep. They're of concern for their ability to affect her, not much more. Her own daughter, in fact, is briefly home from college for Mom's celebration of 20 working years in Washington, D.C. And she's mostly an imposition on her mother's life -- someone who shows up in a short skirt that Mom doesn't like and who needs to be foisted on those members of Mom's staff who aren't otherwise occupied.

The vice president's staff isn't necessarily where most of us would deposit a college-age daughter for safekeeping. When she's out of her boss' earshot, the veep's chief of staff freely and blithely refers to her boss' hopeless "mediocrity."

Don't even ask if the veep happens to remember the names of anyone else's kids. With her own child such an unwelcome visitor back home, how on earth could she?

"Veep" is very funny -- at times mere inches from hilarious. Its premiere is Sunday, just before the second installment of Lena Dunham's drolly terrific new HBO sitcom "Girls."

For those of us who insist on paying attention against the odds, the following things now seem to be self-evident:

1) HBO has become the definitive premium cable network for Sarah Palin TV. Its version of "Game Change," after all, gave Julianne Moore a chance to do a harrowingly convincing Emmy bid as Palin, and now "Veep," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, reimagines Palin completely as a lifelong liberal and Washington pro who seems rather cunningly intermixed with Nancy Pelosi (whether or not Veep Selina Meyer is comparable in her conspicuous ditziness to Pelosi, her self-evident diva-ness seems quite analogous to that of the former speaker of the House. Should anyone seek proof of that, by all means go to Pelosi's autobiography and the reviews of the book by uninvolved critics who were never likely to need her as a source for a story).

2) The TV sitcom is, at long last, waking up to its possibilities. Nothing against "Modern Family," but this era seems mostly to be characterized by overpublicized public hissing matches between Chevy Chase and his boss on "Community" and the transition on "Two and a Half Men" from Charlie Sheen to Ashton Kutcher.

The sitcom has certainly had its day in the sun as a culture-changing TV form. "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" gave America something different and wildly entertaining at the same time. A good argument could be made that America's radical change in attitude toward gayness in the last decade or so was effectuated by nothing so much as the radically increased instance of gay writers on the staffs of sitcoms, major and minor (a fact of American media first yanked out of the closet by brilliant gay critic David Ehrenstein and his 1996 piece in Los Angeles magazine, "How Sitcoms Became the New Gay Art Form").

Cable, though, has brought a fresh new sort of chance-taking and intelligence to the TV sitcom and, in different ways, HBO's "Girls" and now "Veep" exemplify it.

"Veep" is from the kitchens of writer Armando Iannucci ("In the Loop"), but one of its more significant credits is this one: an adviser and executive producer on the show is Frank Rich, former New York Times drama critic and political columnist who's now based out of New York magazine. This is a show that takes its inside Washington braininess seriously. (Note, by the way, the utterly realistic pol reliance on hand sanitizer at all public occasions. These are people who wouldn't dare appear in public without an assistant carrying large quantities of Purell.)

3) It devilishly posits stupidity as an equal-opportunity treasury in American politics. To anyone who got all-too-accustomed to the Bush era's bumblings or Palin's startling inability to name a single American newspaper, "Veep" joyously locates its bumble-brained apostle of superficiality and narcissism smack in the middle of liberal politics, with some of her favorite issues being the end of Senate filibustering and the greening of American manufacturing.

Which, in the latter case, leads to Sunday's hilarity when her much-vaunted efforts to replace plastic eating utensils with ones made of cornstarch run up against the unfortunate fact that cornstarch spoons melt when you try to stir hot coffee with them.

Things go steadily south after her cornstarch silverware initiative. When a rival female pol -- a senator played frostily by Kate Burton -- calls one of her staffers "a weapons-grade retard," Selina ill-advisedly fashions her own "witticism" using the R-word and refers to her misfortune in public as being "hoist by our own retard."

A press field day ensues in which, she notes that "every minute we delay" an apology " 'retard' goes up in font size."

But then, assures one staffer, things on other news fronts could always take the heat off. After all, he says, "What if Tom Hanks dies?"

When the president's absurdly tall liaison enters her office after the latest gaffe and is told there's a new problem, he replies, "Did she kill the last remaining snow leopard? Did she firebomb a hospice?"

The writing on the show is never less than wicked and is often brilliant.

4) It is, quite possibly, the television apotheosis of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She was fine on "Saturday Night Live," beloved and archetypal on "Seinfeld," and indubitably professional while marching in place on "The New Adventures of the Old Christine" (the best thing she did there was employ Wanda Sykes), but in "Veep," she may have given Elaine Benes' smarmy self-absorption its perfect satiric home -- a looks-obsessed, heroically superficial vice president who thinks eyeglasses are "a wheelchair for the eye" and doesn't mind admitting she found Eva Peron "kind of chic."

Now that Showtime's Sunday night hour of misbehaving males is in hiatus, HBO has filled its 10 p.m. Sunday hour with women who are just as wickedly funny.