Lest we worry that the Selina Meyer and her staff have come down with a sudden case of competency in her new role as President, the very first scene of the fourth season of HBO’s Veep finds our hero standing in front of a joint session of Congress, staring at a blank Teleprompter. The episode then zips back 24 hours, to explain the combination of Oval Office wrangling, political backstabbing, and utter stupidity that put that empty prompt in front of her. In many ways, it ends up being a model episode of the show, which serves as a stark but hilarious reminder that the fate of the free world is often in the hands of petty, clumsy, terrible people.
The third season, as you may recall, ended with Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) stepping into the Oval upon the resignation of the president, and he’s all but forgotten as this season gets going; in fact, in a terrific running joke, she and her staff keep referring to him as though he’s dead. The first couple of episodes are all about settling in — the characters into their new environment, and the show into its new setting. Selina is learning the ropes. Poor, clingy Gary (Tony Hale) is a bundle of anxieties, as he can no longer be at her side due constantly to his low security clearance (he comforts himself by keeping watch from the “FLOTUS window”). Amy is all neuroses, worried that she’s tanking the job of running the actual presidential campaign, and feeling smooth operator Bill Ericsson (Diedrich Bader) nipping at her heels. And Jonah (Timothy Simons), everybody’s least favorite liaison, is engaged by the new VP (Phil Reeves) to serve as his “White House wiretap” since, in a rich turning of the tables, Selina is keeping the veep very much out of the loop.
His chief of staff is played by new semi-regular Patton Oswalt, and Veep’s writers top the already fertile visual gag of just putting the diminutive comic up against towering “Jolly Green Jizzface” Jonah by creating a running bit where Oswalt keeps grabbing his underling’s balls. I’ve only seen the first four episodes of this season, but the way that gag is cultivated, nourished, and paid off is something of a master class in comic writing: when it first happens, you’re not quite sure what the hell to make of it, but then it keeps happening, more inappropriate and awkward every time, doubly so for the fact that Jonah (and the audience) have come to expect it, until poor Jonah’s finally had enough—and says so with an earnestness that combines with masterful scene construction and razor-sharp writing to create one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history.
Such adroit collaboration between acting, writing, and directing hardly comes as a surprise at this point; Veep is a well-oiled machine, its cast firing the endlessly quotable dialogue with laser accuracy. A few favorites, and I’ll keep it to a few: the definition of a “cock-thumb”; Amy’s semantic objection to complaints of a blunder (“It was not a blunder, it was an unfortunate mistake”); and Ericcson’s summary of Air Force One leaving Gary and Mike behind in Iran (“It’s Black Hawk Down with Laurel and Hardy”). And yes, the creative insults are as potent as ever, though I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of those.
The initial episodes also give a hint at some of the serialized stories for the season, an element of Veep that doesn’t get enough praise — there are running narratives, but never so intricate or insular that the episodes don’t work as stand-alone comedy. In addition to Jonah’s aforementioned, erm, discomfort, we’ve got further tension in the relationship between Selina and her daughter Catherine courtesy of Kent’s unfortunate polling of the First Daughter’s likability (Selina to Kent, when he hands over the numbers: “How could you have the audacity to — oh, thse are not good”), the President continuing to push her poverty-targeting “Families First” bill, and a data breach with uncanny similarities to last winter’s Sony hack.
The latter thread begins with the kind of story this show has always done well, and a particular facet of modern politics that they’re eerily in tune with: the tiny gaffe that becomes the most important and embarrassing thing in the world for about a day. “This is catching fire like a gas station in a Michael Bay movie,” Mike says of one, but this isn’t just sharp satire or keen observation; the main shift prompted by Veep’s new location is higher stakes, because, as our protagonist puts it, “I’m the President, so everything’s my fault.” And when one small thing turns into a giant thing with massive legal implications, the show seems to echo another series set in the Oval Office: The West Wing, to which Veep seems, more than ever, a cynical corrective. That was a show about a White House populated by verbose, intelligent idealists; this one is filled with (hilariously) sneering, cold-hearted bumblers, led by a president who, in a fourth-episode moment of existential crisis, asks her Chief of Staff, “Ben, why don’t I know what’s going on here?” He doesn’t answer. He’s fallen asleep.
Veep’s fourth season begins Sunday night on HBO.