How Armando Iannucci Breaks Facade

When Armando Iannucci writes a satire, he goes for the realistic. Valerie Jarret, one of President Obama’s advisors, proclaimed Veep to be the most accurate depiction of the White House on television. Although The Death of Stalin seems far-fetched, almost every event is born out of reality – some details even had to be toned down for believability. After watching the film, former British prime minister David Cameron equated its madness to the political turmoil in Downing Street. In the world of politics, the jokes often write themselves.

Iannucci is best known for his political satires that target the systems themselves and the incompetent people running them. The Thick of It and Veep – Iannucci’s shows about the inner workings of British and American government respectively – follow a bumbling cast of staffers putting all of their effort into appearing effective for each other and the press instead of actually being effective. The rest of their energy goes into grasping for power or waiting for the clock to strike five rather than running the country. Few characters are driven by a genuine desire to serve the citizens they govern.

His pieces aren’t just a criticism of congresspeople. It’s also a psychology experiment. An avid Dickens fan, Iannucci enjoys examining the human condition – especially what happens when a massive camera is thrown in front of it. Everything a politician says or does, especially in recent years, is analyzed, debated, and ridiculed. The country is waiting for them to make the wrong move; they want to see the people who run an institution of (supposed) trust and stability prove otherwise.

In Iannucci’s work, the politicians deliver. None of them know what they are doing. But they are so desperate to make it seem like they do. To survive, they create this facade instead of facing the reality they don’t want the public, their enemies, or themselves to see. It’s no wonder why the press plays such a big part in Iannucci’s work; whenever a minister broke their facade in The Thick of It, exasperated communications director Malcolm “King of Spin” Tucker had to clean it up. And Malcolm paid visits to the ministers in practically every episode.

This phenomenon of wearing a facade and the desperation to keep it intact is what Iannucci calls “the fear of being found out.” It’s the biggest worry of the Veep characters, as he describes to film critic Robert Rebert. But how bad are the consequences for a broken facade? Politicians make fools of themselves constantly and continue to win elections. “The worst that can happen to [a Veep character] is maybe they will be embarrassed or you may lose your job or go into lobbying,” Iannucci explains. “It’s temporary.”

Veep’s Selina Meyer is always willing to destroy the reputations of her staffers to keep her looking sane and secure. When a member of her campaign team leaks hundreds of medical and social security records, she decides to “sacrifice a virgin” from the “hordes of young women who roam the halls of the West Wing – fifteen percent of them were hired to be fired.” With the press unphased by the firing and riled up by a second data breach, Meyer bounces between which of her higher-ranked staffers will be “next for the guillotine.” This sends her advisors scrambling to save themselves and betray one another to decide who will take the fall.

In a more personal issue, Meyer combatted rumors of a miscarriage while dealing with another scandal: she reassigned a Secret Service agent because he smiled. Meyer blamed the reassignment on Chief of Staff Amy Brookheimer. She also made Brookheimer claim to be the one who had the miscarriage, which resulted in her having poor judgement in reassigning the agent.

The relationship between Meyer and her staff is perhaps best symbolized by the poster for Veep’s sixth season: in a parody of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” her grayscaled advisors struggle to keep her standing as she elegantly waves an American flag.

Nod as I’m speaking to you. People are looking to me for reassurance and I have no idea what’s going on.

— Georgy Malenkov, The Death of Stalin

To escalate the stakes, Iannucci shifted from the world of modern day western governments to the Soviet Union’s chaotic political climate. In The Death of Stalin, the setting raises the level of the facade game immensely – as well as the consequences. “But for these characters it is ‘if you are found out, you will be dead,’ and it turns them into gibbering, frozen with fear, paranoiacs, every one of them,” Iannucci compares. “It’s the war for succession, kill or be killed.”

The Death of Stalin received criticism for being insensitive to the suffering of the Soviet people. But they aren’t the satirical target. It takes more interest in Stalin’s government and the idea (or facade) it radiated to its citizens: brutal, ruthless, not to be crossed, yet headed by an adored leader. That all-powerful, all-knowing machine was fueled by a common fear and belief that it worked. The public’s faith was risked when the machine’s leader died; it could have been killed when the machine was then thrown into the hands of inept engineers who each wanted control of the steering wheel.

Iannucci’s work brings a certain Gen Z cynicism to mind. Like his politicians, this generation has an apathy for institutions their parents trust and respect. Gen Z is watching the machine break down on a global scale, and in reaction they’re building their own facades for refuge.

Social media plays a substantial role in this. Everyone with an account is their own King of Spin: they create a perfect version of their life for themselves and others to stare at, turning the camera off when the glamor wears away. An expert syndrome has been created, where “I don’t know” or “You’re right” are rarely typed phrases; sounding like you know everything and believing everything you know is right are high priorities. Sometimes users try to show glimpses through the facade, but these peeks are still superficial. TikTok has an odd phenomenon of people “trauma dumping” while dancing to goofy audios. They’re attempting to laugh in the face of their own breaking machine, exactly the way Iannucci’s characters do.

It’s surprising Iannucci hasn’t garnered a larger Gen Z following. Yes, his dialogue is riddled with vulgarities to make parents raise brows, and most teenagers aren’t on the hunt for scathing political satire. However, it reflects the world they live in to a starkly relatable degree, with both levels of consequence; high schoolers are trying to save themselves from peer humiliation while processing the societal and natural collapse occurring around them.

Comedians became the philosophers of this generation. Iannucci’s insights on human psychology are a brilliant study in the absurdity of social media-fueled, image-obsessed society. The effectiveness of satire is another debate, but if it does anything it makes people listen. Watching Armando Iannucci’s work can take away some hope and let apathy grow in its place – if you let it. In its fullest form, audiences will come away no longer seeking to make their facades virtuous but rather their reality.