HBO’s acid-bathed Beltway satire Veep didn’t exactly predict our absurd political reality. But it did come close enough that revisiting past seasons is like watching footage of a train wreck run backward in slow motion.
The episode called “C**tgate” brought a vaginal euphemism into a presidential election. “Election Night” saw a Nate Silver type’s ironclad exit polling proven shockingly wrong. And though Veep hasn’t been able to fire directly at Donald Trump, as it’s set in a parallel universe where he isn’t the president, a BuzzFeed staffer did it for them on April Fools’ Day, splicing the show’s closing credits into news footage of an Oval Office ceremony where Trump bellowed some adjectives, forgot to sign the executive order, and left. It was the most bleakly perfect episode of Veep ever.
And yet even that moment has already been eclipsed by so many others from this prolifically insane administration. As I write, press secretary Sean Spicer — who makes Veep‘s mealy White House mouthpiece look poised and professional — has chosen to mark Passover by asserting that, unlike Syria’s Assad, Hitler never gassed his own people.
Upstaged by reality: This is the position in which Veep showrunner David Mandel and his staff find themselves going into their sixth season (which began April 16). But even if we were now living in Hillaryworld, Veep would still have had to be rethought, given that President Selina Meyer’s political career appears to have ended with her reelection loss in season five. Its last scene — heartbroken Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) comforted by her adoring bodyman, Gary (Tony Hale), on Inauguration Day, 2017 — carried the weight of a natural ending point. (If you’re still having flashbacks to January 20, that season finale will wreck you.) But calling it quits would have sent Selina out on a downer, and that doesn’t feel right either — even though she is an awful person and a barely competent politician. (Her party has never been confirmed, but her electoral wins were marked blue in the election episode.)
A gaffe-prone narcissist, she’s always been an empty dress with little concept of public service. She assumed the presidency when her boss resigned and spent her year in office too indecisive to lead. So why do we feel sympathy for Selina when she’s screwed over by opponents and denied what she wants most: the legitimacy of being the first woman elected (not elevated) to the presidency? Partly it’s because, as self-serving as she is, Selina is still rarely the worst person in the room; that’s due to Mandel and company’s portrayal of American politicians as all being varying degrees of terrible. But our strange affection for Selina owes much more to the indestructible likability of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has won five Emmys for the role.
Ever since inhabiting Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus has been TV’s queen of relatable neuroses and questionable judgment; on Veep, she’s at the top of her game in Selina’s lowest moments. In last season’s “Congressional Ball” episode, Selina fights for her political life, unloading an aria of mean-girl humiliation at a terrified congresswoman who has betrayed her. Eyes shining with malice, teeth bared, Louis-Dreyfus does triumphant viciousness better than anyone else — this scene is like Elaine taking down the Soup Nazi, turned up to eleven.
Two episodes later, a defeated Selina accidentally encounters a White House tour group of women, one of whom reverently tells her that she voted for her, blurting out, “I love you.” Then the group salutes Selina with spontaneous sustained applause. Louis-Dreyfus beautifully calibrates Selina’s emotions here, as she reacts with uncharacteristic gratitude to their kindness. Selina’s stump speeches always include the inane line “Politics is about people,” but this is her only genuine moment of interaction with “The People” in all of Veep, the only time she faces voters without condescension and fear.
When it first aired, that scene seemed to signal that a humbled Selina might be capable of learning in defeat what it means to serve. But in the first episode of the new season, set a year later, she’s the same demanding, self-aggrandizing Selina. Fresh off a nervous breakdown, she’s living in a New York City brownstone, being waited upon by Gary and trying to polish her legacy by hitting up donors to build her presidential library. Meanwhile, the members of Selina’s West Wing staff are scattered to the winds, struggling to adapt to new gigs. It’s comforting seeing these characters living in a version of America that, while disappointing for them, is not at all nightmarish. But much as I appreciate escapism, the episode is aimless; at times, there’s a jarring Absolutely Fabulous vibe, with Selina cast as an Edina, delusionally planning a comeback and sniping at her put-upon daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland).
It’s not until the third episode that this season comes to life. Sent to the country of Georgia as an international election observer, Selina seizes the opportunity to make diplomacy her second act. But she ends up tempted by bribes offered by both the ruling Putinesque strongman and his challenger, a poison-scarred reformer (a robustly funny Stephen Fry). Though set in Georgia, the episode plays as a brisk spoof of our real-life regime’s Russia ties (with some slapstick nods to Duck Soup). As a bonus, Finnish prime minister Minna Häkkinen (Sally Phillips), Selina’s delightfully literal-minded frenemy, returns to annoy with her integrity and dedication to improving people’s lives. Minna’s dead seriousness makes Selina’s standard-politician bullshit seem even more shallow, and Louis-Dreyfus and Phillips make a fantastic team, as Minna helps the underprepared Selina navigate international waters — their scenes have a high-wire, almost improvisational energy.
Their odd-couple collaboration suggests a path Veep could take to reclaiming the satirical high ground at a time when our political reality is so dangerously abnormal. How about ditching the all-politicians-are-equally-bad cynicism, leaving the premise of a buffoonish POTUS with a clown car of enablers in the dust (losers!), and transforming Selina, under Minna’s tutelage, into a comical force for doing good? Staying in its own universe is no longer enough; Veep needs to find a way to compete with, and counter, the monstrous ridiculousness of the Trump Era. Because Selina Meyer is no longer the worst president on television.