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‘Veep’ meets ‘Succession’ but makes it a dictatorship

“The Regime,” starring Kate Winslet, is HBO’s latest prestige series, and it never digs deeper than its elevator pitch: “Veep” meets “Succession” but set inside an authoritarian government.

These inspirations are real. Creator Will Tracy may be best known for co-writing 2022’s “The Menu,” but his credits also include “Succession,” and executive producer Frank Rich is a “Veep” alum. So, do we really need a darkly humorous portrayal of power freaks and their humanizing dysfunctions?

Winslet plays the ridiculous and flamboyant paranoid dictator of an unnamed Central European republic. He somehow seized power despite his many shortcomings and psychological instability, some of which stemmed from a dead father who was mummified and displayed in a glass coffin. During one of her regular visits to his grave, she throws a bouquet of flowers: “There, they are dead, you are dead, you have a lot in common, a lot to discuss.”

She is a grandiose narcissist, surrounded by opportunistic political appointees (plus her husband) who are forever manipulating her to their own ends. As the economy goes down the toilet, one of them calls her “The Lady of the Shrinking GDP.”

He’s also a hypochondriac (if you believe concerns about toxic mold qualify as hypochondria), and his obsessions only subside when a soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) joins his inner circle. The man is a rough guy from the countryside who convinces her that folk remedies will work, and she takes the bait. A Rasputin-like figure? The show just can’t make up its mind. He also claims to be a man of the people who shoots and kills striking workers, which is why everyone calls him “The Butcher”. Hypocrisy may be a fascinating character trait, but it is given no motivation, no perspective, nothing political. What does he believe in?

Her presence is the catalyst that drives the chancellor into a frenzy of lust, selfishness, and policy errors, provoking famine and civil war. Don’t worry about what the people of the country think about all this. The “regime” is definitely not like that. Ordinary people are abstractions.

From left to right: Matthias Schoenaerts and Kate Winslet in the movie “Regime”. (Miya Mizuno/HBO)

Narratively and thematically incoherent, “Regime” offers no one to root for. This is good. But it’s hard to feel any investment in the outcome. There is moderate criticism of the US and its paternalistic approach to geopolitical diplomacy, but the US lacks the courage to strike some real blows. Throughout its six episodes, the series has a comedic energy without much actual comedy. When it comes down to a moment, it floats away almost in spite of itself or on the fumes of pastiche. Winslet’s chancellor takes the stage at a state dinner to sing a tuneless version of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” while her husband accompanies her on the keyboard, sounding like a recycled mash-up of Kendall Roy’s rap at her father’s birthday It’s ringing. “Succession” and that old “Saturday Night Live” skit with Ana Gasteyer and Will Ferrell as two corny lounge singers.

Spiritual nourishment comes at a price, and “The Regime” comes to our screens at a moment of great emergency, despair and mass human tragedy. It is worth considering critically which narratives (whose stories) are worthy of considerable support from Hollywood executives.

“Regime” is criticism in a vacuum that does not make it criticism at all; It is a reconstruction disguised as deconstruction. The film is also likely inspired by the 1940 comedy “The Great Dictator,” in which Charlie Chaplin plays a fictional character similar to Hilter and a Jewish barber who looks just like him.

The film is lively, silly, and full of physical humor. He is also interested in what life is like for the average (oppressed) person as well as the person in power. When the plot culminates in a case of mistaken identity, it creates an opportunity for Chaplin, who also wrote and directed the film, to abandon comedy and move on to something riskier: sincerity. The Berber has some choice words for his fellow countrymen:

“Greed has poisoned people’s souls, barricaded the world with hatred, plunged us into misery and bloodshed. … We think too much and feel too little. We need humanity more than machines. We need kindness and sportsmanship more than intelligence. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”

Nearly a century later, nothing in the conversation is dated, and it’s enough to make you sob. The speech is exciting and hopeful and a rallying cry for something better. I can’t remember the last time Hollywood gave us a serious, guttural critique of tyranny that wasn’t hidden behind a grin.

The “regime” has other goals. He strikes one sarcastic pose after another, numbing the audience with his style of expensive, ostentatious, irony-filled pessimism. Huge amounts of money were paid to a small number of people to convince the audience of defeat. There is no escape, only escape. Instead of Netflix and coolness, we’ve gone to the next level: nihilism and coldness; as if shows like “Regime” or “Succession” were the only way to respond to the rot and fear of our current moment. But that assumes anything else would be too serious. This is not true. But with so few recent examples of getting it right, other than “Abbott Elementary,” it’s easy to think otherwise. A sharp and careful comedy, it can also be unabashed in its belief that the worst consequences will not be a foregone conclusion if we refuse to give up.

Decades after making “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin had second thoughts about the film. “If I had known the true horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made ‘The Great Dictator,'” he wrote in his autobiography. “I couldn’t make fun of the homicidal frenzy of the Nazis.” But the speech at the end of the movie is exactly why the movie works, because it realizes that sarcasm isn’t the end game. Being hopeful in the face of cruelty and oppression and ceasing to settle for lazy comic resignation may be the bravest creative choice there is.

“Regime” — 1 star (out of 4)

Where to watch: Sundays at 8pm on HBO (airing on Max)

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

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