One of the things that has so defined Armando Iannucci‘s excellent HBO series Veep is its particular point of view. The show bored into the issue of the Vice Presidency being a job full of frustrations, pettiness, and one that is often considered useless in the wider political landscape. Like Iannucci’s U.K. political satire series The Thick of It, the show thrived on the high stakes of lowly power, and the jockeying to capture any kind of respect (while simultaneously making idiotic mistakes). That has made it, for several years running, the best political show on TV.
Now, Veep has a quandary. At the end of its third season, Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) got a hoped-for, but still largely surprising promotion. Most of the latter half of the season was devoted to the “will he / won’t he” regarding the never-seen President’s resignation, which reached a fever-pitch of high stress and crazy stakes in the final few episodes. Eventually, it all happened, and Selina became the interim President, and the first female to hold the office.
Season 4 kicks off at that point, with her loyal, but largely confused staff still basking in the excitement of working in the West Wing. Mike (Matt Walsh), Amy (Anna Chlumsky), Dan (Reid Scott), Kent (Gary Cole), Sue (Sufe Bradshaw), Gary (Tony Hale) and Ben (Kevin Dunn) and all still on Selina’s staff, although there’s plenty of shuffling that starts by the third episode that introduces new characters, and some different facets of D.C. political life.
Throughout the first four episodes available for review, Veep remains incredibly sharp and perceptive, with plenty of the show’s creative cursing intact (“why in the name of pixilated fuck?”) But with Selina as President, Veep now lacks a certain kind of trademark urgency and conflict. The jockeying for power and the games to gain status are no longer needing to be played — she is the most powerful woman in the world.
Selina is only finishing out a term, though, and so as the show takes a turn towards the primaries and the election campaign, the intensity will likely pick up. For now, there are plenty of gaffs regarding speeches lost to the teleprompter, data breaches that require heads to roll, and a huge campaign to make Selina’s daughter more likable. Still, the stakes for Selina and Co. don’t feel particularly high, and Selina is actually very competent and self-assured in her new role — it just happens to be funnier when she isn’t. As a comedy, Veep doesn’t need things to hinge on those more macro dramatic conflicts, but then again, that’s what the show has always thrived on.
There is one scene in particular in these first few episodes that embodies that idea, when Selina and Gary (who has been marginalized since Selina’s swearing-in) have a horrible fight that turns out to be a powerful, and ultimately beautiful moment in their relationship. There’s no comedy in it, but a scene like that grounds the series in a way that augments the humor around it. The same is true for a surprising subplot regarding Jonah (Timothy Simmons) being repeatedly groped by the Vice President’s Chief of Staff (Patton Oswalt). Jonah is usually nothing more than comic relief (fantastic though he is), but that arc actually quiets him down, shows a new side to his discomfort, and actually becomes a little compelling in its own right.
It’s twisted, but it works — and that feels like earlier seasons of Veep. Its satire is so mired in darkness, the incompetence so evident on all levels, that it becomes normal. When Ben says, as he shuffles out of the room promising to “deal with” a journalist, “I’m going to treat him like my own brother … who i had murdered in ’86,” it’s a funny line. But there’s this tinge of, well, he could have. Not in a dramatic Frank Underwood kind of way, but just because, well, whatever. The job exists above all other things.
Where Veep continues to excel in Season 4, though, is in the little moments when the staffers reveal things about themselves and their private lives, which are almost never referenced or shown. The toll the job takes on them, particularly as they are hung out to dry, backstabbed, and shuffled around makes Veep feel authentic in its portrayal of D.C.’s cutthroat political world, where one mistake could be the end of their career. As Amy says after a particularly bad piece of news from the office, “I feel like I’m on a life support machine, and they keep unplugging it … to charge their phones.” But as viewers, we would have it no other way.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television (although not the series’ best season … yet).
Veep Season 4 premieres on HBO April 12th at 10:30 p.m.