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Spec Writing Roadmap for VEEP

“VEEP”

SPEC WRITING ROAD MAP

By Guy Jackson and Michael Ferris


SERIES OVERVIEW AND CONCEIT:

"VEEP" is a comedy series created by Armando Iannucci for HBO, concerning the daily tribulations of fictional vice president Selina Meyer, and her hapless staff.

The series has a foundation of utter intimacy, is almost claustrophobic in sticking with Selina and those few surrounding her.  Conversations often take place in whispers, in hushed tones, in urgent close-ups and medium shots.

To illustrate this intimacy further, in the entire first season the President was never once seen, and the show rarely has an exterior shot, beyond probably stock footage of an occasional motorcade. With this intimacy comes only seven major characters, a mere handful for a subject as epic as a vice president. So keep in mind when writing your spec not to get epic, to stay close and intimate.

With only a couple of exceptions, the episodes of "VEEP" happen in real time, the events of an episode usually occurring in a single day or a matter of hours.

The show juxtaposes real political issues like Clean Jobs and Filibuster Bills against inanities like corn starch utensils or whether the Vice President is feuding with the First Lady.

There's always a motif of Wheel Spinning. No one can ever get anything done.

There's nothing episodic about "VEEP", either, everything and nothing is always happening simultaneously, and one line of dialogue concerning the A plot can be followed by another line of dialogue concerning the B plot. Make sure you collage, weave, compress, and stack your plots and events. And stack them in such a way that you are stressing out the characters, making everything inconvenient and coming at the wrong moment at the wrong time.

A great illustration of both collaging plots and intimacy: Selina found out a grinning, touchy-feely photographer at a baseball event could read lips, and then when she had to discuss her pending pregnancy test over the phone she had to turn her back to avoid getting her secret conversation lip read, resulting in the line: 'I can't move my lips."

The show takes a somewhat dim view of government, depicting it as a place where nothing, but nothing, gets done, or can get done, but at times the dim view turns appreciative, and may actually be pointing out that the reason government can't get anything done is because of the incessant interruptions from the people, and the media that the government is governing. At times, then, the show almost says: 'Look at these heroic wheelspinners, pushing their boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again.'

CHARACTER BREAKDOWNS:

MAJOR CHARACTERS:

SELINA MEYERS (JULIA LOUISE-DREYFUS):

Always frustrated by the way she can get nothing done, Selina spins her wheels, gets stuck in the moment, dwells on little nothings, hopelessly circles inane nonsense. One line of "VEEP" dialogue that represents her unending frustration to a T: "So we have 2 Catch-22s simultaneously?"

All this frustration results in Selina forever erupting, moving between barely contained outbursts to outbursts to infinite weariness to a passionate tryst to a penultimate episode nervous breakdown.

Primarily, in writing for Selina, remember that she can simply never get anything, not anything whatsoever, done or done right. Her victories are excruciatingly short-lived and her failings are overwhelming, a constant tide. The first season featured a single continuing thread, that of Selina trying to set up a Clean Jobs Task Force, and she couldn't even accomplish that. She's a drowning woman.

Personal life-wise, there's been a few mentions of a divorce (she's now single), and she has a despondent, neglected daughter who seems quite nice but misses her long lost mother.

And Selina is lost. She relies heavily on all of her staff, often going without an original thought beyond asking her P.A., Gary, to get her a cup of coffee. It's as though Selina was once a confidant woman who pulled herself up by her own bootstraps, but in the corridors of power she was consumed by all the people there to 'help', and overwhelmed by getting in too much of a habit of needing 'help'.

Representative Dialogue: "I want a name and a severed head to go with the name to answer to me if that head could talk."

AMY BROOKHEIMER (ANNA CHLUMSKY):

All of Selina's assistants have nebulous, hard-to-catch titles, but best guess is that Amy is Selina's chief of staff. She is beleaguered, put-upon, and at the end of her rope to match Selina's constant low or high-toned eruptions. Like the rest of Selina's employees, however, Amy's sense of duty is powerful; she eats, sleeps, and drinks Selina, and this was most in evidence in the first season's penultimate episode, when Amy 'took a pregnancy hit'. Selina had gotten pregnant and then lost the baby, and Amy said it was her own self in the same situation to fend off the reporters.

Every once in awhile, however, as when Selina confided her pregnancy to Amy, a genuine, deep-seated friendship is evidenced between the two women.

Amy once had a brief affair with Dan, and was once blackmailed into a date with Jonah, but otherwise her personal life seems non-existent.

As with the rest of the staffers, Amy is entirely capable of being one gnarly bastard, best represented in her greeting line to the tall Jonah: "Oh, look, it's a tower of shit."

GARY WALSH (TONY HALE):

Selina's soft-spoken, meek, absolutely loyal personal assistant, and the only one in the show who doesn't seem to have a vicious streak, Gary lives in a state of quiet desperation, suffering his acid reflux and burning glumness. He hauls around a massive suitcase with a million pockets, and is always ready with Handi Wipes, a toothbrush, hand sanitizer, gum, and any other sundry item.

Gary also knows the names and personal details of everyone in Washington, and was once referred to thus: "Jesus, look at him, he's like the Horse Whisperer." Meaning Gary's being forever ready to lean in and whisper to Selina 'It's Senator So-And-So, her daughter's name is such-and-such and just went to college at so-and-so'.

Gary is a lurker, a shadow, and it was once pointed up in a subplot that he was sired by a jock father who bullied his son, but otherwise very little of Gary's personal life has been mentioned. 

Representative Dialogue: "Your tea's almost ready."

DAN EGAN (REID SCOTT):

The newest member of Selina's staffers, straightaway dubbed 'a shit' by Amy, Dan was once in the employ of the harsh Senator Hallowes, as well as dating her daughter, but in the first episode Dan dumped the daughter and winnowed his way onto Selina's staff. He's a suck-up to the nth degree, but always quick with the spin.

He's a ladykiller as well, and can play guitar, and once entertained a grade school classroom with jazz moves on the guitar, jazz moves that he uses for seduction. He also once had a brief tryst with Amy.

Dan and Mike are always head-to-head, as Dan is Deputy Director of Communications, and wants very much to replace the aging Mike as Director.

MIKE MCLINTOCK (MATT WALSH):

The tired, aging, schleppy Director Of Communications, Mike has conjured a fantastical dog that he has at home, and kept it as an excuse for years to get out of working all hours and having no life. But he works all hours and has no life.

Playing off his job title, Mike has a terrible time communicating anything to anyone, and is constantly upstaged by Dan, his new deputy. Mike is also constantly paranoid, aging as he is while in a young person's game. Characters constantly reflect this paranoia, like reporter Leon West, who in both his appearances nastily upbraided Mike for being incompetent.

As a physical illustration of his helplessness, in one episode Mike couldn't stop sweating in the Washington heat, and was heaped with abuse and ridicule.

Representative Dialogue: "He's a hollow Trojan horse."

SUE WILSON (SUFE BRADSHAW):

Brooking no bullshit whatsoever, Sue is the icy, sour-faced secretary who hovers at the desk rammed against the wall by the door to Selina Meyers' office, firing off single line crushers or zapping out orders for people to shut up or go away.

Sue and Selina have a running joke that's a joke to neither of them, in which Selina says: "Did the President call?" and Sue says: "No." When writing your spec, throw this exchange in once or twice, during repartee in front of Sue's desk.

Next to nothing has been revealed about Sue, but for one fundraiser she did get dressed to the nines, resulting in Jonah hitting on her. So she does have a 'get dressed to the nines' side, and otherwise is pristinely put together, from the fist of a bun in her hair to her razor sharp business suits.

JONAH RYAN (TIMOTHY SIMONS):

The despised White House aide, secure in himself and so forever indignant that he gets called 'Dick Cake' and 'Skyscraper of Shit' (he's quite tall). Jonah usually puts in an appearance to lord it over the vice president's staff at the beginning of each episode, rubbing their noses in his Presidential Aide status, and then he'll often appear again to yell at everyone when some shit or another hits the fan, or he'll appear to coyly scold Selina about some mistake or another she or her staff has made. Jonah's always angling, as when he bribed Gary over a greeting card incident into getting him (Jonah) a date with Amy.

Jonah is always looking for a good time, and has had some weird moments of near-friendship with Dan (when Dan was pressing him for inside information) where the two wound up having lunch in a bad diner and going to a speed/thrash metal rock concert. By the same token Jonah is a lothario, once getting so desperate to take a woman home from one fundraiser he tried and failed to pick up Sue.

But by seeing him at his thrash metal concert, and seeing him at his favorite diner, and seeing him after women, we somehow know the most about Jonah.

Representative Dialogue: "I can see right through your shirt; is it designed that way?"

MINOR CHARACTERS:

KATHERINE MEYER (SARAH SUTHERLAND):

Selina's daughter, only seen in one episode, as a wilting wallflower waiting for her mother to have a moment for her. Katherine certainly seems to conceal a deep inner depression due on her parents' divorce. She's also prone to bursts of frustration over her neglect, as in one moment where, after Selina had gotten the name of a hurricane changed from 'Selina', Katherine blurted out: "Oh, so you control the weather now?" 

SENATOR DOYLE (PHIL REEVES):

Occasionally seen liberal Senator constantly busting Selina's balls as to the Clean Jobs task force.

LEON WEST (BRIAN HUSKEY):

An angry, cynical, bitter reporter from the Washington Post, he's twice appeared, only to be denied a story and swear brutal vengeance upon Selina's staffers.

PLOTTING OVERVIEW:

In the first season there was only a single, overriding plot spine throughout the entire series, the manipulations of Selina attempting (she never finished doing so) to get together a Clean Jobs Task Force. This story was often relegated to C plot status, and just rattled and flailed around in the background in most episodes, the task force forever encountering quagmires. In one episode an oil man needed to be put on the task force but the senator who wanted to lead the task force wouldn't have it so Selina had to manipulate the senator by putting another oil man on the task force which made the senator back down about the first oil man on the task force. That sort of thing.

Deceptively simple, the plots of "VEEP", such as they are, happen all at once, in a rush, in real time, right on top of each other. All the best episodes are over before you know it.

One great and breathless episode involved Selina's decision to show some 'normalcy' and get a photo op at a frozen yogurt shop, while Dan egged Gary on about whether Gary would take a bullet for Selina, while a nasty flu bug circulated D.C. , while the Filibuster Bill needed to be resolved with the Clean Jobs act. So, to illustrate the point of "VEEP" having car crash plots, this episode resolved itself when someone sneezed at Selina in a meeting about the Clean Jobs Act, Gary blocked the sneeze and caught the flu, then passed the flu to Selina in time for her to crumple in a diarrhea mess when she visited the yogurt shop. Pile-up. That's the sort of weaving, stacking, compressing, and collaging you want to achieve.

It's vastly important to keep things happening breathlessly when writing a "VEEP" spec, and let this speed make the spec easier on you. A story beat in this show can literally mean a single line of dialogue. A shining example: the 'You control the weather' line mentioned above was the resolution of the B plot (Selina's relationship to her daughter) in that episode. In fact, this line was also the revelation of an E plot (changing the name of a hurricane). In this way, with plot turns happening on a single line, a plot can get up into the teens with its number of beats in any "VEEP" episode. (see "Plot Skeleton" below).

Another approach to spec-ing "VEEP" is to simply have three plots, an A, B, C plot, and then have other 'plots' be less plots, more obstacle courses. If by 'plots' we mean inciting incident followed by conflict followed by resolution, then the way "VEEP" operates often enough will be to take its three plots through some sort of obstacle course which isn't really exactly a plot.

For example, in the episode where the question became whether Selina was pregnant, that was the A plot, with 15 beats. There was a B plot involving a photographer and a C plot involving Gary. But the rest of the 'plots' might've looked like plots but they never really began nor ended nor had much conflict, and so they could instead be considered 'obstacle courses'. In the pregnancy episode (which we'll discuss in more detail below) Selina was trying to hold a Healthy Eating Initiative, but as she wrassled with her possible pregnancy, the Healthy Eating Initiative went badly with some grumpy attendants and then got trapped in a room because of a gas leak and then wound up on a baseball field meeting the baseball players. Nothing technically happened in this 'plot', it was only a gauntlet for Selina to run as she learned whether she was pregnant.   

PLOT SKELETON:

Here's an example skeleton for an episode, the 6th episode of the first season (entitled "BASEBALL"). As discussed above, there are plots and then there are 'plots', the latter which amount to little more than obstacle courses to stymie the progression of the actual plots.

Note that there are no commercial breaks, and the stories will often simply wander into an epilogue, or tag, at the end.

Also note that "VEEP" is topsy-turvy in terms of which plot comes first. Again, things happen so fast that the A plot's first beat can occur only several lines into an episode, but before that the B and C plots will have already kicked off…

OPENING TITLES

  1. 1st beat of D plot: Food & Manufacturing reps complain at the Healthy Food Initiative; the Healthy Food Initiative being at a baseball stadium functions as an obstacle course to the other plots.

  2. 1st beat of B plot: a Photographer turns out to be touchy-feely, giving Selina's shoulder a brief squeeze

  3. 1st beat of C plot: Gary confesses that his father is a bullying jock, whom he's thinking of as they're at the stadium

  4. 1st beat of A plot: Selina confesses she might be pregnant to Amy

  5. 2nd beat of C plot: Gary shows off his 'assistant bag' to reassure his lack of manliness in the face of thinking about his jock father

  6. 2nd beat of A plot: Selina and Amy strategize about pregnancy; 'does the father know'? 'abortion'?

  7. 2nd beat of B plot: Photographer gets too close with picture taking, is upbraided by Selina

  8. 3rd beat of A plot: Selina asks Amy to keep it quiet, buy a pregnancy test

  9. 4th beat of A plot: Amy tells Mike about pregnancy via cell

  10. 3rd beat of C plot: Gary promises his father via cell an autographed photo of the baseball team

  11. 5th beat of A plot: Dan mistakes Amy's buying pregnancy test as Amy being pregnant

  12. 2nd beat of D plot/3rd beat of B plot: touchy-feely Photographer arranges group photo of Healthy Food Initiative/the meeting becomes trapped in the stadium due on a gas leak

  13. 1st beat of E plot: Amy and Dan set up Selina's visit to a school, again less a plot than an obstacle course for the other plots

  14. Beat of Continuing Spine: Mike hears of a firing of a Secret Service agent from a reporter (fired for 'smiling at Selina'), the agent having been fired in-between episodes. This spinal plot started in the last episode and continues in the next two episodes.

  15. 3rd beat of D plot: The Healthy Food Initiative reps get grouchy about being trapped

  16. 4th beat of B plot/6th beat of A plot: touchy-feely photographer tells Selina he can lip read/she worries he may of lip read re: her pregnancy

  17. 7th beat of A plot: in a mix-up between Amy and Mike re: the Secret Service story, Amy tells Selina the press might know she's pregnant

  18. 8th beat of A plot: Amy sends Gary to collect a pregnancy test

  19. 4th beat of D plot: Jonah and Selina strategize to bring the Healthy Food Initiative down into the stadium to meet the Orioles baseball players

  20. 9th beat of A plot/4th beat of C plot: Gary screws up buying pregnancy test by showing his Veep aide badge to cashier/Gary tells his father he's with the baseball players

  21. 10th beat of A plot: Selina tells her secret lover (Ted) she might be pregnant, and that he has to marry her because the press might know

  22. 5th beat of B plot: Photographer gets balls busted by Selina for reading her lips re: getting married

  23. 5th beat of D plot: Selina escapes stadium after group photo with baseball players

  24. 2nd beat of E plot: Dan and Amy work on ways to keep kids at school entertained while waiting on Selina, reporter on Secret Service story bothers them as well

  25. 11th beat of A plot: Selina and Sue find a day (two months previously) on Selina's calendar whereby Ted proposed to her

  26. 3rd beat of E plot: Selina arrives at elementary school

  27. 12th beat of A plot: Amy and Selina strategize to do pregnancy test at elementary school, Dan finds out it might be Selina who's pregnant

  28. 5th beat of C plot: Gary tries to get baseball photo from Photographer, who refuses him

  29. 13th beat of A plot: Selina does the pregnancy test, her and her team quibble over whether the pregnancy has leaked to the press, Selina spills her urine on her hand, shakes hands with Photographer (to get him back for touchy-feely, thereby hitting the 6th and wrap-up beat of B plot)

  30. 14th beat of A plot/6th beat of C plot: Gary lies, tells his father via cell he got the baseball photo while he works with Selina's urine to find out the result of Selina's pregnancy test

  31. 15th beat of A plot/4th beat of E plot: Gary whispers to Selina that she's pregnant in front of the elementary school class 

The closing credits, which usually feature live action, featured photos in the form of a tag, horrible photos taken by the touchy-feely Photographer depicting Selina scowling, and the doctored photo Gary was going to give to his father depicting Gary in the group photo with the baseball team. Just to be confusing, this latter photo is arguably the last beat of the C plot, which would lend it the extra beat to make it into the B plot, and relegate the Photographer plot to C plot status. But who's counting? But that's the idea of everything piled on at once, eh?

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Due on the show's theme of Wheel Spinning, all of the characters are pretty much in the same place from where they started. Selina's gone through her secret relationship to a pregnancy and miscarriage and is out the other side, still working to be in closer contact with the President and her daughter. Amy and Dan and Mike all survived being fired, and so they continue in their eternal desperation. Gary is still the loyal servant and continuing in his quiet desperation. Jonah is still the loathed aide de camp from the White House. Sue is still the no-bullshit secretary.

WORLD & SETTING:

The show takes place by-and-large in the vice president's office, a vast room overstuffed with desks and aides being the ante-room to the vice president's chamber, where Selina will perch or slump in her high-backed leather chair. Sometimes there are sorties out and about to yogurt shops, baseball fields, or fundraisers.

But here's the thing: really, in keeping with the show's frantic, coming nor going nor going nor staying, wheel-spinning nature, note that a vast majority of the goings-on take place at the door to the vice president's office, awkwardly, right in the nexus of floorspace in front of Sue's receptionist desk, right there on the threshold of the vice president's office, right there at the doorway.

By the same token, a lot of the show also takes place in backseats of limos and corridors and hallways, a Corridors Of Power motif perhaps, with the cast hustling down this corridor or that. Staircases as well.

Well, you could say it's 'The Corridors of Power', but likely all these hallways and staircases and doorways and limo rides simply mean is there no place to settle down, no place to stop and sit for the frantic, scurrying folk of "VEEP", and they are forever in-between.