It's practically a requirement if you do a show about politics that you do an episode about a government shutdown. But the shutdown episode of "Veep" – which first aired June 2 — is among the most entertaining. Now that the United States finds itself in the midst of a not-so-funny real life government shutdown, it's worth looking at why fictional ones make for such great TV.
"I just think it's such a weird, bizarre thing to happen in any country," says Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist who created the HBO comedy about fictional Vice President Selina Meyer.
"It's not something happening around the world where the government can just – on the whim of a couple people who didn't vote some way in the House of Representatives – shut down. So we want to play that up."
Iannucci says when he thought of the plotline, the U.S. government had been recently close to a shutdown. "It seems to be an annual event really," he says, and when they were shooting the episode, the possibility was looming again. "It was avoided but I just thought for the story, let's just push it to the actual shutdown just so that we can then open all these other possibilities."
Researching for the episode, Iannucci and his team had to look into the practicalities involved in a shutdown, particularly the furlough process. "You have the comic potential of people being told whether they're essential or nonessential, which can be devastating to some people," he says.
Of course, in the "Veep" world, that decision isn't given much thought. Selina furloughs and "unfurloughs" her aides depending on her mood and need for them. "She is furloughing indiscriminately into the crowd!" Amy, her chief of staff, accurately describes in one scene.
But Iannucci was also interested in the outside-the-beltway effects of a government shutdown.
"You can spend all your time in the back rooms, doing deals and what not, but the results of your inability to come up with a deal can have enormous consequences and you are going to be held accountable," he says. In the episode, a man is killed by a bear because there's no park rangers to rescue him and Selina must deal with his grieving widow, who then blames Selina.
"We just wanted to see how one little thing like this can have a sweeping effect on people and turn the story turn on Selina," Iannucci says.
Setting it apart from more serious political dramas like "West Wing" or "House of Cards," "Veep" trademarks on the pettiness, incompetency and insularity of Washington. A government shutdown is perhaps, the perfect manifestation of all that.
"The shutdown as an idea really criticizes the fact there's gridlock in D.C. You have a constitution that only works if people compromise." Iannucci says. "If you decide not to compromise the whole thing grinds to halt and then you have this electorate, this population that feels absolutely left out."
The plotline is also just one of many "Veep" has borrowed from Washington's recent past or foreshadowed in its recent future, which Iannucci deposits on the cyclical nature of politics.
"You look at the stuff that comes up again and again…. this stuff that seems to resonate. You apply a little bit of intelligence, a little bit of knowledge that you have required from speaking to people inside D.C. to kind of predict [what] might come up and then follow that course," Iannucci says. "We're not saying this is a prediction. It's more of saying this is the parallel world of 'Veep' and Selina Meyer – see how similar it is to the real world?"