Thanks to a mix of fate and scheduling, Veep’s fifth season (which premiered last night on HBO) will likely be its most relevant yet. Over the course of 10 weeks this spring, the series will chronicle the results of a fictional presidential election alongside its real-world counterpart. There’s nothing inherently unusual about presidential elections (there have been dozens of them), but this one, if you haven’t already noticed, feels particularly absurd. So Veep is in a precarious position this season — its comedic competition is real life. The series must figure out a way to make fun of a political system that already feels like a parody of itself.
The show’s comedic competition is the real world
Veep’s fourth season ended with the news that the election between President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) her opponent, Senator Bill O’Brien had resulted in a tie. This stalemate, unprecedented in American history, gives Selina even more fuel to resent her electorate, who she views as her key to the White House and the reason she’s being kept from it. Veep isn’t only interested in ridiculing the political process, but also questioning those implicit in the circus, i.e., the voters. Louis-Dreyfus’s first lines of the season are said directly to camera, as she delivers a televised address that’s disdainful of both the political system and the American public. “In a democracy such as ours, it falls to the people to choose our president,” she says, “and that is what you attempted to do last night.”
The tie between Meyer and O’Brien necessitates a recount, which might sound more like 2000 election than 2016, but Veep’s current presidential race doesn’t feel too far removed the one that’s happening now. In Veep, politicians are either shallow stereotypes or so exaggerated as to feel like they couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. O’Brien is the former, a Southerner with a grey goatee standing in for any good ol’ boy, while Meyer is the latter, an ambitious but largely unqualified leader of the free world, taken to preposterous conclusions. But together, their attributes could be mixed ‘n matched to build nearly any of the presidential hopefuls from this election cycle.
On the other hand, Selina’s team and other Washington insiders on the show still feel refreshingly singular. Gary (Tony Hale) is as in awe of Selina as ever, while she has only gotten less forgiving of his puppy-doggish tendencies as she climbs the West Wing ladder. Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan Egan (Reid Scott) are both back, romantic tension and selfishness personified in full force. Selina’s press secretary Mike (Matt Walsh), who has always been the dopey one, is mined for even more slapstick material, because now he has a FitBit and is on a juice cleanse. Veep’s writers have also apparently recognized the potential of Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett, who has a bigger role this season than in the past. His lines are nearly always delivered in a way that makes even the most mundane idea feel like a new kind of comedy. Here’s Splett on email: “You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Splett1’s my father. I’ll be sad to see him go, but it’ll be nice to get my hands on that handle.”
Veep has a new showrunner this season, but its political barbs and comedic slight of hand haven’t suffered for it. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s David Mandel has taken over the reigns from Veep’s creator Armando Iannucci (credited as a consultant this season). One of Veep’s core themes has always been the emptiness of political jargon. The act of running for president is a race to speak first, and loudly, whether or not you have anything to say. Selina’s speeches are referred to as “vacuous nonsense” by the same people who write them. After the tie is announced, Selina remarks, “I gotta say stuff before he says stuff.” Even people tangentially related to the election are prone to this nothing-speak. Remarking on the recount, a pundit offers, “A vote is a vote, a count is a count, and a law is a law.”
A funhouse mirror of the current news cycle
Not every word is meaningless, nor is every target vague. Plenty of jokes and scenes are a funhouse mirror of the current news cycle. Lines like, “How many abortions does a pro-lifer have to pressure his wife into before the voters turn on him?” play off the darkest fears of conservative email chains. Among Selina’s seemingly aimless schedule of appearances is something referred to only as a “symposium on race,” in which every panel member is white. At one point, Selina accidentally tweets several inappropriate things, and then blames it on an NSA breach by Chinese hackers.
Veep might have a difficult time outpacing the current election in terms of absurdity, but it does have one advantage over reality: it’s fake. The show’s most useful function is as a respite from the very thing it mocks, a refuge from a political storm, a brief, restorative 30 minutes spent in a world where the most pressing issue is whether or not the jokes land.