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'Veep' delivers landslide of laughs

If you hold the opinion, as many of us do these days, that Washington, D.C., apparently is a combination of lunatic asylum and day care center for petulant infants, HBO's new comedy series "Veep," which premieres at 10 p.m. tonight, probably won't change your mind. It just may relieve your frustration with some healthy laughter, however.

The political sitcom, which marks the welcome return of Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus to series television, views events in the nation's capital from the perspective of former senator Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus), a career politician who seemed to be on the fast track to the White House until she was elected vice president. Since then, her political life has become a series of comic missteps in which even her best-intentioned efforts get lost in a maze of red tape and personal politics.

Although HBO is the home of "Real Time With Bill Maher" and such right wing-riling original movies as "Recount" and "Game Change," "Veep" is refreshingly nonpartisan in the glee with which it picks its targets, largely because neither Selina nor any of her Washington colleagues are clearly identified by their political party. Series creator Armando Iannucci previously had similar bipartisan fun in his Oscar-nominated 2009 political comedy "In the Loop," and Louis-Dreyfus says the show can be enjoyed by viewers regardless of their personal politics.

"Armando is, and I think rightly so, very interested in revealing political behavior and not taking a political point of view, other than to say these are human beings in politics," says the actress, who is also a producer on "Veep."

Speaking to TV critics at an HBO news conference a few months ago, Iannucci says most of the public has learned enough about how political sausage is made in Washington to resist a "West Wing"-like depiction of Beltway insiders as selfless public servants.

"There are two types of ways in which Washington has been portrayed before, which is the very noble -- everyone is very good at their job, and it's for the highest ends -- or it's a very cynical, corrupt, rather sinister world," Iannucci says. "I actually believe the truth is somewhere in between. It's fundamentally a lot of people trying to get on with a job. Some of them are good at it, and some of them are bad at it. And the worst ones are the ones who are bad at it but who think they're good at it. They're the most dangerous ones."

Vice President Selina Meyer isn't dangerous or incompetent; she's just stymied and frustrated, chronically asking her executive assistant if the president has called (he hasn't, pretty much ever) and knowing all too well the chill of preparing to walk into a high-profile news conference only to be told at the very last minute that the president doesn't want you to talk about any of the stuff you're there to talk about in the first place.

"As the first season evolves, you will see aspects of her competence come forward, and I believe she is highly competent," Louis-Dreyfus says of her character. "She's also highly ambitious, but she's in a position that is somewhat untenable for her. Therein lies the rub. She is a political animal who is caught in a position of power and no power, all at the same time."

It's fertile ground for comedy, especially in a future episode wherein the president (always unseen) experiences chest pains while abroad. When that news is delivered, Selina has to visibly struggle to keep her face from lighting up at the notion that her destiny is finally at hand.

It's a moment that Louis-Dreyfus plays brilliantly, which is no surprise since the actress has made a career of taking self-absorbed women -- comically selfish New Yorker Elaine Benes of "Seinfeld," for example, or neurotic single mom Christine Campbell in "The New Adventures of Old Christine" -- and making them weirdly endearing.