Now in its fifth season, Veep finds itself facing a curious position. What happens to satire when the horrors of reality outpace it? A few episodes into the first season, I’m not sure it’s found an answer.
That’s not to say this Veep is anything other than the consistently whip-smart, vicious, and laugh-out-loud funny show it’s always been. It continues to drag its leads ever-deeper into the muck, and this season’s central conflict – the Electoral College deadlock that capped off season four – allows for heaping doses of the brutal narcissism that motivates, well, pretty much anyone with screen time.
So far, it’s also been brisk. The show smartly reunited Jonah (Timothy Simons), Dan (Reid Scott), and Amy (Anna Chlumsky) in the first episode back, then dispatched them to the place they could do the most harm: Nevada, home to a critical recount vote. Along for the ride is Richard (Sam Richardson), who in one of the season’s most welcome surprises finally finds redemption. Well, some anyway; while his doctorate in “recount procedures in the West” proves handy, his affable lack of awareness makes him as much of a liability as ever.
As for Selina Meyers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), catastrophes both national (a plummeting stock market, Chinese hackers breaking the NSA firewall) and personal (in an upcoming episode, facing the loss of her mother) provide less of a backdrop to her presidency than a constant rhythm of annoyances. Selina only registers them to the extent that they impact her office, and more specifically her tenuous grip on it.
Selina has always put Selina first; if she didn’t, there wouldn’t be much of a show. Veep without Selina’s ego would be like CSI without dead bodies. It’s what drives both plot and point of view. In this season, though, she drops almost any shred of pretense that there’s a greater good at work, or that her thoughts extend beyond the Oval Office, and what it might take to stay there.
Which is entertaining! And makes for plenty of zip. After news of that firewall breach, she pauses only long enough to ask if they happened to fix the Wi-Fi while they were at it. When told she’s scheduled to meet with two Olympians, her one follow-up is to ask: “Special or normal?”
The plot line that seems aimed at putting Selina beyond redemption – where several of her cohorts already comfortably live – comes over the next couple of weeks, when her response to her mother’s stroke (other than “again?”) is inseparable from its effect on the polls. It feels especially cold, even for Selina, and maybe designed to signal to the audience that no, these people aren’t as empty inside as you think; they’re worse.
Any other year, that would be enough. It’s a natural arc, after all, and fitting to raise the stakes by lowering the Meyer administration’s likability. These are, with the exceptions of bumblers like Richard, Mike (Matt Walsh), and Gary (Tony Hale), mostly loathsome people. Which is fun, as exaggerated versions of how we all assume Capitol Hill secretly works.
The fun of watching powerful people behaving with the clumsy selfishness of juice-addled toddlers, though, loses some of its kick when a major US political party actually nominates one for president. Were he a Veep character, Donald Trump would be too outlandish to believe. As a real-life politician, he’s that as well, but also a constant nagging reminder that these Meyer folks maybe aren’t so bad after all.
Fortunately, there are plenty of small, special moments, one-off winners, and new introductions to keep you distracted. Martin Mull and John Slattery have been enlisted, as a veteran political operative and banking magnate/romantic interest, respectively. The show quietly introduces the possibility that Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) is in fact ageless, which hopefully becomes a running gag. We find out that Gary is from Birmingham, Alabama, which he proudly calls “The Pittsburgh of the South,” which I especially enjoyed because Hale actually is a native Birminghamian, and yes, that’s a real slogan the city used at one point.
And while show creator Armando Iannucci may have left after last season, he didn’t take Veep’s Olympian vulgarity with him. Within a few minutes of the first episode, advisor Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) has already told disgraced former colleague Bill Ericsson (Diedrich Bader) that he’s “as welcome here as as swastika-shaped shit in a synagog.”
In fact, all of the elements that have made Veep one of the best comedies on television for the last few years are still in play, and in some cases better than ever. Its arrows are as sharp as ever; it’s just a shame (on a lot of levels!) that the target it’s shooting at moved so far, so fast.