TV’s most caustic — and probably most accurate — depiction of Washington returns to HBO for a fifth season on Sunday, and it couldn’t come soon enough. In the new episodes of Veep, President Selina Meyer and her team of bumbling opportunists double down on their contempt for ordinary Americans, emphasizing the distance between the country’s leaders and the people they apparently want nothing more than to govern. And that’s exactly what Veep’s cast of sycophants and backstabbers want: to appear as if they care deeply about the American people, while working tirelessly to promote themselves. At this stage in the real-world election cycle, it’s refreshing to see that laid bare in the service of comedy.
Veep’s fourth season left off with an unlikely yet legally possible scenario: an Electoral College tie between presidential candidates Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Senator Bill O’Brien (Brad Leland). Selina became president by default in the third season finale, when the president stepped down to care for his sick wife; now, her chance to become the first elected woman president depends on a Nevada recount.
The fifth season begins the day after the election, with staffers unceremoniously tearing down banners and stuffing posters into trash bins. “My fellow Americans,” Selina says in voiceover as a poster with her face on it is torn in half, “I stand before you in bare-faced awe at the majesty of our democratic system.” Veep loves to juxtapose the lexicon of politician-speak with the ever more pressing concern of optics. The new season introduces more image-related gaffes: In place of last season’s bad haircut, in the premiere, the stock market crashes after Selina gives a televised press conference with a massive pimple on her cheek. “Zitzilla just stomped all over Wall Street,” Ben (Kevin Dunn) laments.
Five seasons in, Selina’s become at once more appealing and more appalling. She treats her right-hand man, Gary (Toby Hale), like a doormat, and shoos her daughter out of the room every chance she gets. (Throughout the first four episodes, Catherine, played by Sarah Sutherland, is filming her mother’s daily routine for a college film project; that camera is the Chekov’s gun of the season.) When Kent (Gary Cole) informs Selina that the governor of Idaho wants to declare a state of emergency following “catastrophic mudslides,” she asks by how many votes she lost the state. “Then I declare a state of go fuck yourself, I’m not spending money to scrape mud off a bunch of dirt roads.”
Selina may be crass and self-serving, but Louis-Dreyfus plays her with such fuck-it swagger that it’s hard to hate her. The writers have made her more competent in the past few seasons: In Season 5 she gets a love interest, banker Charlie Baird (John Slattery), and of course is totally distracted by him. But when Mike (Matt Walsh) mentions Charlie in a meeting about the recount, she snaps at him, “Hey, Garfield, we’re right in the middle of talking about Nevada.” In the beginning, Veep was happy for us to laugh at Selina’s flightiness, but the more it focuses on her stratospheric ambitions — despite and not instead of that flightiness — the stronger it gets.
Her increased focus on actual politics doesn’t diminish her comedic value. Selina is actually really funny, something Americans appear to crave in their presidential candidates, judging by the number of late-night spots and desperate attempts at humor the candidates have evinced in recent months. And while I certainly wouldn’t vote her into any office, it’s fun to watch a woman president invite a man up to “the residence” after she receives good news, and then immediately send him away.
But whenever Veep’s characters venture beyond the incestuous pool of Washington insiders, it’s a harsh reminder of the disconnect between them and the rest of the country. (The one exception is junior staffer Richard Splett, played with a hilariously buoyant earnestness by Sam Richardson.) Ben sends Congressman Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) down to Nevada — where Amy (Anna Chlumsky), Dan (Scott Reid), and Richard are leading Selina’s team in a state recount — to “dazzle some of these armadillo fuckers with my political star power.” When there’s an argument over a ballot, Furlong berates a local staffer, Washington style: “I’ve been doing this since before your mother was throwing herself down the stairs belly-first,” he says, as she begins to cry.
Veep is as much a show about psychology as it is about politics. Its characters are forever tracking the mood swings of their allies and enemies, frantic to locate their motivations — and forever nodding, smiling, and shaking hands. The clenched-teeth throwaway line has become a signature of the show, and the source of some of its best jokes. But you also get the sense that they’re more than just tossed-off witticisms; to the people who utter them, they’re a way to release the tension of being the human equivalent of a press release — a fart dispatched in the antechamber of the Oval Office.
Veep generally avoids turning its characters into cartoonish political monsters (we don’t need fiction for that) by showing how no one really gets what she wants. As soon as there’s a victory, something or someone threatens to upend it. No one has unlimited freedom or power — even the president chafes at her restraints, both personal and political — and despite the show’s ironically pompous score, no one gets to hold onto their dignity for too long.
The show’s cynicism is often contrasted with the optimism of The West Wing, but Veep is still a fantasy, one that confirms our worst fears about the people who run the country. Yes, it assures, these people really are that selfish and image-obsessed. Enjoy the laughter, because when you switch the channel to CNN, you’ll want to cry.