Sunday, July 3, 2016

Legacy: On the Evolving and Consistent Charm of HBO's Veep

Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's Veep.

Silena: So who called me a cunt?
Amy: Uh...
Silena: Was it everybody?
Amy: Pretty much, yeah.
                                            – Veep, "C**tgate" (Season 5, Episode 6)

This review contains major spoilers for the fifth season of Veep .

I haven't written about Veep since the end of its somewhat alienating first season. At the time what frustrated me the most was the character of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) herself, specifically how the show wanted the series to be about her and yet adamantly refused to give viewers anything real about her to hang on to. The same seemed true of all the show's characters: it was a world populated by people whose dreams had already grown so narrow that it hardly seemed to cost them anything to sacrifice them at the altar of politics as usual. As I wrote at the time, "[A] political series whose basic claim is that politics is almost exclusively about the practice of maintaining power from election to election, dominating the news cycle, and scoring points on petty grudges hardly seems like a revelation in the American political context. The only way to draw viewers in enough to care is to detail the painful personal compromises and costs of a life lived in that context." The irony, I noted, was that the less characters have inner lives of any substance, the less devastating are the trials and humiliations they suffer – and that devastation is the stuff of dark comedy. Looking back from the vantage point of the end of Season 5 (as Michael Lueger observed at the beginning of this season), the pathos and the exquisite agony that were absent from Veep's freshman season have emerging ever since – and it is in the fields of pathos and hilarious agony that the show has kept growing, and growing on me, ever since. Though the sixth episode of season five –– quoted above – will likely go down in television history as the one where the (still largely taboo) C-word was used repeatedly and unselfconsciously, this is also a moment that paradoxically displays Veep’s current maturity. In the episode, it's been leaked to the press that a high-level staffer was overheard referring to the President by the "word," and, seemingly appalled, President Meyer launches an internal investigation. But with this small exchange, she confesses that she has few illusions about the love or loyalty of her team. Louis-Dreyfus plays the short scene with a perfect combination of resignation, exhaustion and relief – a passing moment of genuine, and even poignant, self-awareness that reveals just how tired Selina Meyer has become after a lifetime of having to pretend otherwise.

A scene from the second season of W1A, the BBC's excruciating funny testament to the torturous politics of life within the BBC itself, kept running through my head as I watched season 5 of Veep. Anna Rampton (the recently promoted BBC Director of Better, played by Sarah Parish) is having a typically restrained British panic attack and Ian (Hugh Bonneville) tries to calm her down by confessing that, what really helps him in those moments, is to remind himself that "in the end, in the big scheme of things, none of the really matters that much. I mean, not really, does it?" It is a moment of perspective and humility that seems forever beyond the grasp of our heroes on Veep, for whom the space between their inner and outer lives has been so eroded by a politics of perception that their very sense of self is at stake with the release of every poll. Consider the intricate inversion of this season's episode about the death of Selina's mother: seconds before she is take the stage to deliver her mother's eulogy, she finds out she's lost the Nevada recount (and the popular vote) in the contested Presidential election. Shaken, Selina breaks down on the stage, bursting into very public tears, "I'm sorry, it's just all sort of hitting me right now. I have lost… so much." Needless to say, the outpouring of sympathy for the grieving daughter gives her popularity numbers a timely bump, but the scene – in addition to its dark comedy – prompted some genuine compassion for her from this viewer: her public life is all that exists of her personal life and there is little doubt that her world is crashing in on her.

The ensemble cast – and most crucially the electric chemistry between them (Tony Hale and Louis-Dreyfus may well go down in TV history as one of the best comedic duos in scripted comedy) – has been consistently strong. Unusually, for a cable comedy series, Veep has kept all of its main characters, and even added a few new ones: not only Gary Cole's number-crunching uber-pedant Kent Davison ("It's pronounced Nev-AD-a."), but this season's low-key game changer, Richard Splett (Sam Richardson). Before Splett came on the scene – introduced in the third season in a small recurring role and promoted to series regular last year – Veep's only model for sanity was Meyer's long-suffering personal secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw). While Sue maintains her balance and distance through convincing threats and elegantly established misanthropy, Splett stands at the opposite side of the field: intermittently competent and incompetent as the rest of the team, he bears those burdens differently than anyone else – with a genuine smile. Splett seems just happy to be of service when he can, and the regular insults roll off him – not necessarily because he is oblivious (which he also is), but because, it is slowly implied, his sense of self and self-esteem isn't at stake with the success or failures of his job. (A brief cutaway gag to his role in a local Gilbert and Sullivan society production of The Mikado will likely live on as one of the highlights of the season for me.)

Timothy Simons and Sam Richardson in Veep.

The fifth season is full of moments when the broken humanity of truly, unbelievably narcissistic and corrupt politicians leaks out, all of which adds up to a genuinely emotional arc that could have served as a powerful final season. The final two episodes further tear down the carefully maintained walls each character has maintained since the beginning of the series: the penultimate episode takes a genre-busting turn by sharing the "behind the scenes" (and soon to be "lost") documentary that Selina's daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) has been filming in the background all season long; the final episode tracks the last days of Meyer and her team in the White House. A signature moment from Catherine's film: sitting across from Selina's heart attack-prone Chief of Staff, Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn), Catherine asks "Do you think about what you'll do if my mother doesn't win? "God, I have no idea. What else am I gonna do?", he answers as he sinks further and further into the armchair in the home we've never seen, or even heard about, before.

A final word on the final episode, and its promise of what is to come: I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking (and even hoping) that, as the events of the last half hour unfolded, I was watching the series come to an end. As Selina contemplated, rejected and finally despairingly embraced a return to the contemptible position of VP under a possible President Tom James (Hugh Laurie), I deeply felt, as a viewer, the return to boredom and frustration Selina demonstrated. The impotence and pointlessness of the role had been so powerfully mined and explored in previous seasons that the very threat of stepping backward made me imagine quitting the series. (Atypically, I even paused mid-episode to check the Internet to confirm, that, yes, the show had been renewed for another season.)

But as the credits rolled on a dejected and rain-damped now-former President Meyer, the force of the series' trajectory landed for me: a story of the accidental rise and seemingly almost intentional fall of this group of smart, broken people whose short sightedness and ego-based decisions are their own worst enemies, now has the full scope of DC culture – inside and outside the West Wing. As our team will disperse in the coming sixth season, the series’ full portrait of what a life well-wasted in pursuit of a successful political life looks like will coalesce even further. And the simple fact that the only entry into the halls of powers for the Meyer team will now be the newly-minted Congressman Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons, who has created one the most watchable and contemptible characters currently on television) makes me want to believe this was planned for in year one.

Some credit for the evolving power of the series is perhaps owed to real life politics, which recently has grown more absurd and surreal than any satire would dare dream. Amid the burn the house down, après moi le déluge politics (seemingly now embraced by politicians and voters alike) of the past few months, there is something almost reassuringly nostalgic in Veep's world of soulless careerism – because at least for them, the survival of the public sphere (in all of its say nothing/do nothing inertia) is linked directly to their own survival. Four years ago, I couldn't have imagined that real legacy of Veep would be to humanize workers on the Hill. Such is our time, I suppose.

 – Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010. 

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