What do you do when you’re a political satire at a time when real-life politics have become so cravenly absurd as to defy parody? If you’re Veep, you get meaner.
Once, such an idea didn’t seem possible. Veep has long been one of the most vicious comedies in TV history, full of dumb, selfish opportunists whose only real gift tended to be their creative way with profanity. It has cemented the inner-circle Hall of Fame case for Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the desperately narcissistic Selina Meyer. (She has won an Emmy for all six previous seasons, and between her sheer genius, the impending end of the show and her recovery from cancer, is as close to a lock as it gets for a seventh.) YouTube is blessed with highlight reels of the characters brutally insulting each other (my favorite: the one where a Congressman reads a list of cruel nicknames for Timothy Simons’ goonish Jonah, including “Benedict Cum In His Own Hands,” “The Cloud Botherer” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidickcheese”). It has long been a masterpiece of misanthropy, a celebration of cruelty at its least apologetic.
But the sixth season, debuting a little over a year into the Trump presidency, at times felt warm and fuzzy compared to what was happening in our reality. When no strategy was too shameless, when politicians began saying the unsayable very loudly, where was there to go with Selina Meyer? That season mitigated the problem by dwelling on her unhappy new civilian life a year after she lost re-election to the presidency, but there was still a sense that Veep was playing second fiddle to the headlines.
The end of Season Six saw Selina presented with a chance to build a sane and maybe even happy post-retirement life or to run for office again, Grover Cleveland-style. She opted to run, and the final season picks up in early campaign days, with Selina struggling to separate herself from the pack of hopefuls in Iowa — including Jonah, whose campaign is horrifying to everyone, not least of whom are his own campaign managers(*).
(*) Patton Oswalt and Diedrich Bader reprise their roles and are part of a small of army of familiar guests — some longtime members of the show’s recurring ensemble, some newcomers like Rhea Seehorn, William Fichtner, Katie Asleton and Toks Olagundoye — who help populate the many campaigns. Both Louis-Dreyfus and the show are beloved, and there’s a feeling of the entire TV comedy business wanting to take part in Selina’s farewell.
Selina’s initial campaign for the presidency was the one major aspect of her story we never saw, as the series began shortly into her vice-presidential term. That gives showrunner David Mandel (who took over for Veep creator Armando Iannucci a few years back) relatively new territory to explore. But more striking than the setting is the way that Selina (and, to a degree, Anna Chlumsky as Selina’s right-hand woman Amy) has cast aside what little was left of her humanity to win at all costs.
Selina was never a genius, nor a saint. But if you watch the early seasons, there was a sense that she was the adult in the room who was painfully aware of the depths to which she was stooping in order to amass and then retain political power. Every now and then, you’d get glimpses of the person Selina was before she ascended to the national stage. That person’s pretty much gone now. You can attribute that to the Iannucci/Mandel switchover, to the way that sitcom character traits tend to get more exaggerated the longer they’re around, or to the idea that too much time in and around the White House sharpened all of her edges and cut out her few remaining soft spots.
So the Selina we see on the campaign trail has to keep polling her staff for a good sound byte about why she wants to be president again. (Amy has the best response: “So I can nuke America.”) When she finds out about yet another mass shooting(*), her first instinct is to ask whether it’s better for her if the shooter was Muslim or a white guy. Whatever substance or integrity she once possessed is long in the rearview mirror. She wants to sit in the Oval Office again by any means necessary, all because the chair was yanked away from her so abruptly the last time.
(*) Veep, BoJack Horseman and a few other recent comedies have tried to turn the mass shooting epidemic into dark comic fodder. I don’t want to say that this is something that should never be used for humor. But the fact that two of the best comedies of this decade have both done clumsy running gags about it suggests that future shows need to set the laughter bar very high before going there.
Much of this is clear character progression (particularly across the Mandel-run seasons), but there were still moments early in the new season when I shuddered at the latest thing Selina, Amy, unctuous bag man Gary (Tony Hale), oily Dan (Reid Scott) or the rest of the team said or did. Some of that may be the nearly two-year hiatus since Season Six ended (the result of Louis-Dreyfus’ cancer treatment). But it also feels as if Mandel and company have opted to dial up the nastiness even more than usual to better compete with Twitter and cable news.
The increasingly monstrous behavior is a more natural fit with Jonah’s campaign, since he was never presented as having any redeeming qualities. So unleashing him as an entitled, power-hungry manchild feels more natural (and also the closest the new season comes to resonating with our world). The series has a Murderers’ Row of supporting players — I haven’t even mentioned Kevin Dunn (beleaguered campaign manager Ben), Gary Cole (robotic polling expert Kent), Matt Walsh (former speechwriter Mike, flailing around in his new role as a BuzzFeed political reporter), Sarah Sutherland (Selina’s perpetually mistreated daughter Catherine), Clea DuVall (Selina’s reserved Secret Service handler/daughter-in-law Marjorie) or Sam Richardson (perpetually, delightfully optimistic Richard Splett) — but Jonah feels like Veep‘s most of-the-moment creation, and Simons more than lives up to the increased spotlight.
It’s not 100 percent cynicism and despair. Chlumsky has a great character arc this year as Amy considers what to do after getting pregnant via on-again, off-again, always-loathsome hookup Dan. That subplot gets pretty harsh at times too — Dan, learning that Amy hasn’t yet had the abortion they discussed, complains, “Jesus, I thought you said the thing was already in the 7-Eleven Dumpster in the sky!” — but it’s revisiting the same humanity-vs.-career question that Selina answered by running for office again.
Veep remains one of the great comedies of this, or any, era. And these new episodes often left me howling. But as Selina lunges for the brass ring one last time, there are nearly as many cringes to be found as laughs. Enjoy, but beware.
Veep returns March 31st. I’ve seen the final season’s first three episodes.