tv review

Veep Is Back to Make America Hilarious Again

L-R: Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Photo: HBO

In the first episode of the new season of Veep, Selina Meyer, still trying to regain equilibrium after a humiliating presidential-election loss, reveals a foolproof plan to get her life back on track: She’ll run for president again.

“That is a great ideeeeee-a,” says Gary, Selena’s perpetually hovering assistant, who greets this news with the kind of sycophantic panic that is his trademark. “I think you’re definitely ready for this.” As played by the sublime Tony Hale, Gary utters these two sentences in a single, strained gasp, his face reddening as though this information is already giving him a rash. Seriously, Hale is so good in this scene that somehow, he even makes it look like the back of Gary’s neck is having a nervous breakdown.

This is one of several moments in the sixth season of Veep, which begins Sunday on HBO, that calls to mind Hillary Clinton’s recent, agonizing election loss. Here’s another: Selina, in a subsequent episode, saying she’d like the grounds of her presidential library to feature a reflecting pool so people can “come and sit and reflect on what this cocksuck of a country did to me.” It’s important to remember that Veep is neither based on nor about the former Democratic presidential candidate. For starters, Selina Meyer actually did, albeit briefly, become the first female president of the United States. Second, Clinton is way more competent and articulate than Selina has ever been. Third, and most relevantly, this new season of Veep went into production before the results of the 2016 election were confirmed. As this Washington Post piece points out, on November 8, cast and crew were in the middle of shooting episode three — an episode, ironically, about the dirty politics behind an election in Georgia, the former Soviet territory, not the state — when they, along with the rest of America, learned that Trump had defeated Clinton.

Veep season six is not intended to be a commentary on what our “cocksuck of a country” did to Hillary Clinton, nor is it an exploration of the Trump era. It’s just that occasionally, purely by accident, it feels a little bit like one. For the most part, though, Veep remains committed to the same basic principle: capturing the absurdity that is endemic to the democratic process, then cranking it up to uproarious, acerbic, and squirm-inducingly high levels.

The context for that absurdity, both within the show and outside of it, obviously has changed. Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, still a boss at tossing off elaborate profanities like she’s casually snapping bubblegum) is now out of office and based in New York City, but still focused on boosting her reputation and legacy, while the members of her staff have scattered to the winds that tend to sweep away former White House aides. Some of them have new jobs in the media, while others continue as advisors to other political power players, or become alleged power players themselves. Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), elected to Congress last season just in time to cast a vote that Selena didn’t want him to cast, is still serving in the legislature and, yes, still the worst kind of D.C. wannabe.

As a result of all these moving pieces, the show now has to engage in even more creative plot construction to ensure key characters are represented and continue to cross paths with one another. In the initial three episodes made available to critics, it pulls that off with an ease first established under creator Armando Iannucci and continued when David Mandel took over as showrunner last season.

As for the political world outside the show, as previously noted, things have obviously gotten a little insane. In the time I spent writing this review, the following New York Times headline was circulating on social media: “The Latest Test for the White House? Pulling Off Its Easter Egg Roll.” That sounds less like a headline and more like a log line from an unaired episode of the Selina Meyer story. On a consistent basis, the Trump administration seems determined to out-Veep Veep. Given the way the show operates, though, that’s not a major issue.

Unlike a lot of politically focused television, particularly post-Trump, Veep has traditionally always avoided specific references to actual leaders and Washington figures. That works in its favor, especially now. During such a tense period, when a lot of people may be interested in avoiding politics altogether, the series still effectively serves as a 30-minute exercise in escapism. And when it does tackle a situation reminiscent of current or recent events, something that happened a lot last season, too, it plays like a clever wink from the other side of the political looking glass, which, comedically speaking, is more welcome at this point than another predictable riff on a bad Trump tweet.

Other reasons to relish the fact that Veep is back: Every member of the ensemble cast is still performing at his or her peak, adding just the right amount of salt on dialogue that’s already high in sodium. Louis-Dreyfus and Hale, in particular, have got their physical comedy rhythms down so well that in some of their scenes, they’re practically dancing. In the second episode, when Selina visits the presidential library of Stuart Hughes, the commander-in-chief under whom she served as vice-president, Gary hastily lifts her body out of the fake Oval Office just in time to avoid getting caught by her old boss. It’s a well-choreographed bit of business that would have been right at home in an episode of I Love Lucy.

Of course, in the days of I Love Lucy, people on TV didn’t talk the way they do on Veep. This season, the writers continue to prove that no series on television is more inventive in its use of obscenities and insults than this one. An example, from Selina to Jonah: “I will destroy you in ways that are so creative, they will honor me for it at the Kennedy Center.” Louis-Dreyfus chokes and hisses this line with such barely contained anger, she makes Sean Spicer look extremely measured and calm by comparison.

In summary, then: Even though the political tectonic plates in this country continue to shift every day, things on Veep are basically the same as they ever were. Which makes watching it an almost nostalgic experience. You turn on an episode and you think, “You know, if we’re really lucky, maybe one day we can have a government that’s filled with the kind of bumbling but basically harmless idiots who keep trying to run the world on this show.” Veep: it’s no longer just a brilliant satire. It’s almost — almost — something to which we can aspire.

Veep Is Back to Make America Hilarious Again