When Veep started out a few years ago, our nation was a more innocent place, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer offered the sharpest political satire around. But over four amazing seasons, the HBO comedy has moved way beyond mere political satire, and that’s a good thing — because it’s been out-satirized by the mad rampage of current American history.
Actual politics has gotten several degrees loonier than anything a writers’ room could have imagined a few months ago. (Can you imagine them trying to get away with a “brokered convention” subplot?) Now there’s something almost comforting about seeing President Selina fight to hold on to her job in the midst of a disputed election and a recount — that’s so 16 years ago. But what makes Veep still so fresh — so acerbic, so startling, so funny — is the relentlessly vicious tone. These people hate America only slightly less than they hate everything else. This is a political scene where “You’re as toxic as a urinal cake in Chernobyl” can pass for a friendly greeting.
Each Veep season has outnastied the previous one, but last season was truly a run for the record books — one of the most perfect seasons any sitcom has had, culminating in the virtuosic “Testimony” episode, a solid half hour of loathsome people lying under oath. Creator Armando Ianucci signed off with an Election Night cliffhanger episode, with the results up in the air. As the ever-excellent Gary Cole said, “I’ve known sailors less likely to go either way than this.” But even without Ianucci, the show barrels forward on the same venomous level, as Louis-Dreyfus offers America her own special brand of decisive leadership. She specializes in “the three S’s: strength, stability and bullshit.”
There’s a welcome new face in her White House: Mad Men‘s John Slattery, as a financial-sector sleazebag who gets recruited into providing secret services to his Commander in Chief, swaggering in and out of Selina’s bed with all his roguish Roger Sterling charm. Timothy Simons still looms large as everybody’s favorite target Jonah, better known to those who have to put up with him as “Benedict Come-In-His-Own-Hand” or “One Erection” or “Jolly Green Jizz-Face.” While Selina battles for the Oval Office, she has to fend off the treacherous maneuvers of her Vice President, played brilliantly by Hugh Laurie. In her spare time, she runs the country, displaying her sophisticated sense of foreign policy (“when life gives you Yemen, make Yemen-ade”) and rants against the dumb-ass voters who keep screwing things up. When Kevin Dunn says, “Two great Greek contributions to society — democracy and getting fucked up the ass,” Selina just scoffs. “Yeah well, I’ve tried both and they’re overrated.”
There isn’t a halfway likeable human being anywhere near this White House. Veep is the epitome of the comedy school founded by the late great Garry Shandling with The Larry Sanders Show — a breakthrough for the sitcom format, not just in terms of the shaky single-camera look, but the tempo of angry grown-ups abusing each other at warp speed, never slowing down for a reaction (much less a laugh from the non-existent studio audience). Shandling had a dream: you could build a whole sitcom universe around twisted self-loathing show-biz adults, with nobody to take out their hostility on except each other — and the American public, the unseen but constant victim on both shows.
Everybody on Veep has given up on their own life in order to chase a dream of America, but it’s an America where they hate everybody they have to deal with on a day-to-day level — really, that’s the only America where any of these people would feel at home. This is no place for anyone who might be surprised to walk into a room and be told, “You’re about as welcome as a swastika-shaped shit in a synagogue.” (Let’s just say there are a lot of political leaders who fit that description.)
Veep doesn’t go for topical jokes at this point, which is wise, since the 2016 campaign is beyond lampooning. With talk of a brokered convention to save the Republicans from a Trump Monster they’ve spent the past 35 years building, with a Democrat who can’t figure out her script after eight years as the front-runner and another Democrat stealing her states despite cheerily admitting he has no idea how legislation happens, it’s the kind of campaign that requires a John Oliver just to keep up to date. Everybody here — White House advisers, party hacks, lobbyists, volunteers — is part of the same corruption that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in their very different ways, take moral pride in not being part of; all that back-slapping, deal-making, horn-swaggling politics is somebody else’s problem, i.e. Hillary’s.
But what Veep nails — and what never gets dated — is the raging hostility at the core of it all. So here’s to four more years of President Selina: Make America hateful again.