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Hail to the ‘Veep’: How HBO’s Political Comedy Made History

Rob Sheffield pays tribute to the genius of this bastards-of-the-Beltway satire — and why we’ll genuinely miss Selina Meyer

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the series finale of 'Veep.'

Colleen Hayes/HBO

Farewell, President Selina Meyer.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ brilliantly monstrous Commander-in-Chief signed off last night in the excellent Veep series finale, going out the way she came in: making a nation gasp in horror. In one last hilarious power grab for the White House, she sells out every principle she ever pretended to have. With the FBI closing in on the illegal activities of her Meyer Fund, Selina decides to toss them a fall guy: her most devoted attendant, Tony Hale’s Gary. At the end, we see her funeral, years in the future. Poor Gary shows up with her favorite lipstick and tells her casket, “You would have hated the flowers.” Selina finally gets the presidential funeral of her dreams — only to get bumped off the news when Tom Hanks dies the same day, the John Lennon to her Darby Crash.

It was a perfect ending that summed up everything that made Veep one of the all-time great TV comedies: a ruthless nonstop bile-barrage of toxic creeps eviscerating each other at warp speed, with no innocent bystanders and nobody even resembling a likable human being. Over seven seasons, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brought the old Seinfeld motto of “no hugging, no learning” to creator Armando Iannucci’s political satire. She was one of the truly heroic villains of TV history, ruling an ensemble stacked with profane virtuosos. No other show had so many loathsome operators preying on each other: Kevin Dunn’s Ben, Anna Chlumsky’s Amy, Gary Cole’s Kent, Dan Bakkedahl’s Roger Furlong and the lowest of the low, Timothy Simons’ Jonah. And no other show moved this fast, cranking up the insults to the velocity of His Girl Friday or a Robert Altman film set to 33 1/3 speed.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Cover Story: From ‘Seinfeld’ to ‘Veep’

Last night, Selina locked up the 2020 election by fending off a threat from her rival and former VP, Hugh Laurie’s oily Tom James. She talked his girlfriend and Chief of Staff into making a false accusation, with one of those rants only Louis-Dreyfus could pull off: “Trust me — he will never see you as anything other than the TGI Friday’s hostess on Proactiv who lets him bend you over his desk while you close your eyes to avoid coming face to face with that framed photo of his family’s trip to Aspen while he drowns your Little Mermaid back tat in a pool of jizz and admires his own reflection.” In case these words seem harsh, Selina explains it’s all in the name of righteous sisterhood. “I just hate to see smart women throw away their political careers on powerful men who only see them as the gash of least resistance.”

For her running mate, she chooses none other than Jonah, figuring the VP job is the most harmless place to stash him. As she says, “Being Vice-President is like being declawed, defanged, neutered, ball-gagged and sealed in an abandoned coal mine under two miles of human shit.” That’s really the Veep worldview in one-sentence. Compared to this series’ endgame, Seinfeld‘s finale was a hug-fest.

In a way, it really evolved two different shows — it flipped in 2016, when the real-life presidency did. The current regime is the Starbucks cup in the Westeros of the Veep Fictional Universe: it’s always there in the background, breaking the alternate-reality spell. The premise revolved around a Washington D.C. scene where Selina Meyer could stand out as a notably horrible human, where politicians felt obliged to hide criminal activity, where everyone assumed the American people could only tolerate so much corruption. But that changed in the final seasons, when Meyer’s Beltway full of bastards got out-absurded by current events. It was as if that 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast got interrupted by an actual Martian invasion. Veep needed the Obama White House for context the way The X-Files needed Bill Clinton. Neither show could handle the transition of power.

“I’m certainly interested in politics,” Louis-Dreyfus told me in 2017. “But there’s no correlation between what’s happening and the world of Veep; we’ve set it aside as an alternate universe. From a timeline point of view, anything after Reagan is off-limits. So it’s like we time-shifted, and our world began.” Yet its America, like ours, changed drastically while the show was on the air. On Election Night 2016, Veep was filming the episode where Selina is monitoring an election in the country of Georgia. “Shortly after we found out Hillary was clearly gonna lose, I had to deliver the following line: ‘Jesus Christ, democracy — what a fucking horror show.’ It was at a Georgian polling place with women in babushkas and chickens. And I don’t think I’ve ever delivered any line more truthfully in my life.”

In the final season, Veep could no longer resist commenting on current headlines in a coy way, right up to the finale, where Selina colludes to get the election rigged by the Chinese. (All she has to do is give back Tibet.) A few years ago, in the halcyon days of 2015, Anna Chlumsky’s Anna told Selina, “You are the worst thing to happen to this country since food in buckets. And maybe slavery.” But now it’s a lot tougher for Selina to shock us — hell, these days Roger Furlong looks like a moderate. It didn’t just become an altered show at the end because Armando Iannucci left (he was replaced by David Mandel). It changed because the U.S. left the planet.

The show’s fourth season remains one of the very best seasons any sitcom has ever had, reaching delirious heights of nihilistic rapid-fire aggro. Everything brilliant about this show peaked in the “Testimony” episode, where practically every single line of dialogue is a lie, much of it under oath. It’s Veep at its purest and most intense. Kevin Dunn, one of the very best things to happen to television in the past half-century, manages to outsleaze everyone else, assuring Congress, “If I had kids, and I do, this bill would be my baby.”

It gave us such a beautifully loathsome collection of villains, but the one we’ll miss most has to be Jonah — better known as “Jolly Green Jizz-Face” or “The Cloud Botherer” or “Johnny Titballs” or “One Erection,” though to me he’ll always be “Benedict Come-In-His-Own-Hand.” He got a few choice new names in the final episode: Amy, his Chief of Staff, calls him “a monument to vaginal dryness,” while Roger Furlong dubs him “Hep C Kevin McHale.” Jonah stands as a high-water mark for the TV depiction of tall people and our unique ability to get in the way. Simons, an unknown with no previous TV credits, was one of Veep‘s great finds. Another: Sarah Sutherland as long-suffering daughter Catherine. She’s the third generation of her Canadian family to occupy the White House: Her dad Kiefer played the President in Designated Survivor, while her grandfather Donald was Chief of Staff in Shadow Conspiracy. Catherine was a constant delight as she got more bitter through the years; in last night’s finale, she toasted Selina’s funeral with margaritas.

We will miss every single one of these people. We’ll miss their insults, their resignation to the fact that they have no life (“I hope I don’t have a cat because believe me, that poor fucker’s dead”), their contorted brains. We’ll miss the dialogue that whizzed past so fast, you couldn’t even tell how much sense it made. (“It’s like explaining Supertramp to a Komodo dragon!”) Most of all, perhaps, we’ll miss the idea that they were once able to startle us. Veep rode them out to the end, without ever watering these creeps down or reforming them or (yikes) letting them learn anything. Me, I’m praying for a Better Call Saul-style spin-off about about Jonah, perhaps called President Scrotum Pole. In the finale, we learned that he became Selina’s VP, only to get impeached, but it wouldn’t take much cheating to tack an “or DID he?” onto that finale. One of the show’s achievements was how it made us believe that in American politics, there’s no way a human being as repulsive as Jonah could fail.

 

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