In the most recent episode of "Veep," Julia Louis-Dreyfus's harried, foul-mouthed vice president character tosses off a seemingly run-of-the-mill comic line when discussing what documents to release to the media. “I still think there needs to be something embarrassing in there so that it doesn't look as if we've just airbrushed the nipples out of this (expletive) thing,” she says.
Her words, no doubt, reminded hardcore "Seinfeld" fans of the installment in which an unintentionally revealing photo is used for Elaine Benes' Christmas card. We also couldn’t suppress smiles of recognition during past "Veep" episodes in which plots turned on frozen yogurt and a lip-reader — more echoes of “Seinfeld”-reminiscent laughter.
Whether homage, in-jokes or coincidences, the bits underscore parallels between the two TV comedies — not that there's anything wrong with that. "Veep," which caps a strong debut season Sunday, gleefully mocks the so-called "Seinfeld Curse" by embracing elements of the classic show's quirky, sardonic spirit.
Louis-Dreyfus's Vice President Selina Meyer is light years from Elaine Benes in prestige — but not personality. Both are feisty, perennially annoyed and sarcastic. They're both surrounded by oddballs who talk in their own shorthand (the “brush-by” greeting on “Veep” seems to be kin to Jerry Seinfeld’s dreaded “kiss hello” encounters) and aren't very likeable (perhaps the greatest contribution of “Seinfeld” is proving a sitcom filled with grating characters can succeed).
Despite the differences in their statuses, both of Louis-Dreyfus's characters are essentially flunkies — Selina to a president who never calls, and Elaine variously to Mr. Pitt, Mr. Lippman and J. Peterman, who never leave her alone. Many of the biggest laughs are generated by watching these strong women bristle amid a frustrating lack of power over their fates.
"Veep" smartly builds on Louis-Dreyfus's strengths as a comedic actress who can project out-sized pique and vulnerability, sometimes in the same breath. Her gaffe-prone veep is variously repelled by and reliant on her staff, tasking them with everything from buying her pregnancy tests to breaking up with her boyfriend before he can dump her ("I'm not going to be the dumpee — I'm going to be the dumper," Selina declares — recalling the “Seinfeld” episode in which George’s girlfriend pops his patented "It's-not-you, it's-me" break-up line on him before he can spring it on her).
Strong writing and a great ensemble cast that includes Tony Hale, Matt Walsh and Anna Chlumsky help elevate “Veep” beyond a clever exhibition of snappy, sometimes hilarious, profanity-laced dialogue. We might not particularly like the characters. But we’ve slowly grown to care about them as Selina has struggled with the political (getting foiled on a clean-jobs program push) and the personal (a miscarriage) — even if we wouldn’t want her and her crew anywhere near the Oval Office (at least not in real life).
Louis-Dreyfus, who experienced modest post-“Seinfeld” success with "The New Adventures of Old Christine," is confident enough at this stage in her career to dip into the old to help mold a new character. “Veep” airs on HBO, the longtime home of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which he unabashedly plays a version of his Costanza-like self — only with a lot more wealth and (anti-)social standing that George ever enjoyed.
Selina may never get that call from the president, but HBO already has rung up an order for a 10-episode second season of "Veep." Check out a preview of Sunday's season finale below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.