Few shows are able to maintain such a high level of consistency through creative shakeups as HBO’s Veep. With the departure of series creator and showrunner Armando Iannucci after four seasons, the series faced the question of whether or not the story of Selina Meyer’s perpetual runner-up political career was over and if HBO’s perpetual Emmy winner was down for the count. As it turned out, however, the show’s vulgar, insolent voice was as strong as ever in season 5. Under the guidance of new showrunner David Mandel – who worked with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm – the series followed through on the changes put in place prior to Iannucci’s exit. That meant seeing Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character through a tumultuous time in the White House as the nation’s first female president – albeit one who wasn’t elected and whose time in office would be incredibly short lived.
The end of season 5 was a little like the Veep writers’ room throwing a hand grenade at a perfectly good show. It saw Selina ousted from the White House and, after taking on (and losing) the position of Leader of the Free World, the role that gave the series its name. As the season 6 premiere demonstrates, however, the resulting detonation of Selina’s political career, and any hope that she might one day find herself sitting behind a desk in the Oval Office again, was clearly the right choice.
Veep makes a game of seeing just how craven, entitled, and wretched its characters can be and at the start of season 6, the game is still very much afoot. Characters have been dispersed in the wake of the season 5 finale, and getting caught up with them is just part of what makes ‘Omaha’ such a solid start to the new season. Everyone from Selina to Amy to Dan and even Mike faces an uncertain future, questing for an iota of power and relevance within a system of self-involved ingrates irretrievably removed from the people they were elected to serve. Or in other words: the US government.
Season 6 starts with Selina at her lowest, and considering what a thankless, disagreeable position the show makes the vice presidency out to be, that’s saying something. After three seasons with her waiting in the wings of the power, status, and title she craved, the show finally gave Selina what she wanted. And like all good satires, the sweet taste of victory proved excruciatingly bitter. Installing Selina in the White House with a huge asterisk attached meant changing the name of the game. The series has always functioned best when its characters’ wants eclipsed their ability to attain those desires. The underlying joke of Veep was always that the person second in line for the most powerful position in the world was actually the least powerful person in the government. Watching someone like Selina struggle with the inherent indignity of that fact gave the series its edge, but also its most human moments. Watching as Selina lost not only her tenuous grip on the presidency, but also the status of VP makes moments resonate even more, turning Veep into a sublime tragedy.
For all the acidic vulgarity, callousness, and epic insults lobbed about in the show’s depiction of D.C. political warfare, Selina and her cohort are just as fragile as anyone else – perhaps even more. And in the spirit of its own hilarious insensitivity, Veep gleefully leers as Selina is reduced to discussing her post-election goings-on with Dan, who has since gone on to become the nascent co-host of CBS This Morning. Like most interactions in which both characters know someone (or the world) is watching, not a single opportunity to publically remind one another of their failures is missed. During her run on Seinfeld and certainly the past five seasons on HBO, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has mastered the fine art of the stinging deflection, reliably reducing her interview to a series of meaningless sound bites and go-nowhere talking points that lends such a shocking amount of authenticity and current real-world flavor to the series its no wonder the writers seemingly jumped at the chance to push the show’s characters into a new world of powerlessness.
The premiere is a study of embarrassment by degrees. No one is spared the humiliation of their present circumstances, and even the most promising of situations is found to have degradation waiting in the wings – or in Dan’s case, just off camera. As such, ‘Omaha’ wins by checking the level of each character’s powerlessness. Asking who has lost the most power is a bit of a non-starter since none of them really ever had any, but it still makes for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments seeing who’s in the worst shape. Is it Amy, who is running the Nevada campaign of her bumbling bolo-wearing fiancé Buddy Calhoun, or is it Mike, who is now an overworked, underpaid (or make that non-paid), deeply ineffectual stay-at-home dad? Maybe it’s Gary, who has seemingly swallowed his pride to continue working in politics. Then again, there’s always Kevin Dunn’s Ben Cafferty, who quickly detonates in the private sector with a series of racially insensitive remarks during a staff meeting at Uber, and Timothy Simons’ Jonah Ryan, who’s been reduced to shaving his head following a cancer scare used to drum up some sympathy support for his burgeoning political career. As is usually the case, though, the show saves some of its biggest cracks for Selina, who’s been relegated to asking her daughter for money to fund a foundation and the ever-expanding list of social concerns it plans to focus on. The only person to escape from season 5 seemingly unscathed is Selina’s personal assistant/doormat Gary, who is happily underfoot once more.
It all makes for a very funny return to a series that has learned to wring humor from dissatisfaction with the same skill it does acidic rebuttals and burning insults. As Selina learns her chances for another presidential run are all but impossible, Veep seemingly gets set to do what too few shows attempt: move on in the face of actual change. If any series can find success in its characters failures, it’s this one.
Veep continues next Sunday with ‘Library’ @10pm on HBO.