Veep is the show that won all the awards but no one watched. I finally gave in and binge-watched its five seasons after Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ bookcase collapsed under the weight of five consecutive Best Actress Emmys. Even more significantly, it helped me pay attention to politics again in a way I had avoided for over a decade after I had lost faith in the Electoral College and the American voting public. Luckily, that would and will never happen again.
And so in the midst of one of the ugliest, most divided, most unseemly presidential campaigns, I watched all of Veep. Twice.
In an act of art imitating life, the show managed to reflect all of the rusted, broken-down hydraulics of our nation’s political machine.
Selina Meyer was vice president, and she was fighting tooth and nail for recognition and power from the Oval Office. The hilarity of the disconnect between President-Elect Donald Trump and Mike Pence as the latter tried to explain away the cavalcade of offensive rhetoric didn’t surprise me because I had already seen it onscreen. I would watch a show centered on Mike Pence, if the very idea of it didn’t chill me to the bone.
Inaugural Veep echoed the early seasons of The Office. It relied on the screw-ups of its boss, while Selina Meyer flailed and staggered through her vice presidency. Selina struggled with assembling her team, the fallout from insulting various demographics, and her own desperately attempted stranglehold on her public perception. The Michael Scott-ness of it all was palpable, and the show suffered for being such a mirror-image of its stylistic predecessors. Veep hadn’t yet carved out its identity from the granite of television’s Mount Rushmore.
Veep’s second season heated up admirably as it began drawing straight from the headlines. The show tackled the tangled rat’s nest of terrorist non-negotiations, intelligence ethics, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. It satirized the government shutdown and the Democrat’s biennial shellacking in the midterm elections. Finally, the show was starting to mine the rich ore of real world potential.
Where the show was weighed down was in the presence of Selina Meyer’s family, toxic ex-husband Andrew and even more significantly, half-millennial half-hippie caricature Catherine, the Kim Bauer to Selina’s wildly incompetent Jack (ironic because I wrote this before remembering actress Sarah Sutherland is Kiefer’s real-life daughter). Still the show continued to take off on the foundation of its ensemble, especially the rivalry-cum-flirtation between Anna Chlumsky’s harried Amy Brookheimer and Reid Scott’s anything-at-all-costs Dan Egan. Eventually the characters of Veep began to take on a life of their own in D.C. as archetypes and stereotypes. When you’ve entered the pop culture lexicon of your portrayed field, you’ve succeeded.
The most important development of Season Three was the evolution of Veep’s side characters. Ken Dunn’s Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty and Gary Cole’s Kent Davidson became two halves of a buddy cop movie. Timothy Simon’s Jonah Ryan transformed from vaguely amusing one-joke character to something greater, a bumbling doofus who would become a Congressman someday. I’ve never felt such lack of faith in the fate of America. Almost.
The second most important development is in the third episode “Alicia,” in which eponymous activist and mother Alicia Bryce is trying to fight for Selina’s Family First bill for universal childcare. Despite her studied political uncaring, Selina actually believes in this bill and fights, actually valiantly this time, behind the scenes despite the pressures of her own party.
The portrayal of the Family First’s struggle to ratification hits far harder than Season One’s Macauley Amendment (the Clean Jobs bill), with the application of a human face. If there was anything there to kindle the low flickering flame of empathy in me, it was this episode, which was not particularly funny. In fact, the discomfiture of it is what made the show’s portrayal of Washington so particularly compelling.
The best season of Veep accurately captures the spirit of our actual election. It’s difficult to try and work through my own personal feelings about the actual Trump-Clinton race, which started to devolve into a gigantic fever dream episode of the Kardashians. It’s only fitting that the last three episodes dissolve into crushingly poignant chaos. You could feel Selina and her team’s desperation as they tried to cripple Family First in eighth episode “B/ill,” resorting to lobbying against their own beliefs and morals in order to cling to the cliff of power by their fingernails.
It was during this episode that I found myself what I would be doing in Selina’s own squeaky shoes. It’s Philosophy 101, but it’s a fundamental question: Should we compromise on our beliefs if it leaves us in charge longer to make positive change? It’s idealism vs. practicality. Bernie vs. Hillary.
It’s by no means an accurate analogy, but it’s a part of Washington.
But as Selina’s administration is forced to face up to the responsibility of data breaches and illegal lobbying in “Testimony” before a court and the fingers pointing at each other, you could hear echoes of it reverberating through the campaign. The entire time I found myself rooting for Meyers and her crew. Many others have discussed what kind of person Selina is, angry and conniving and often cruel. But the fallacy of perspective got to me. She was our protagonist, and so I identified with her. Our nation’s antihero at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world.
I wanted nothing more than to see her hold onto the throne and continue to spin out comedic gold.
I cheered for her as she fought for each and every state and sweated through all the spreadsheets and the counts as she wrestled for control of the Electoral College. I did the same thing Tuesday night as I watched in shock as Hillary Clinton slowly slid off the map, each state slowly pinging from pale pink to Republican red. In a comedy where the insane happens and then culminates in an electoral tie, it was starting to look more and more possible. And then that insane possibility became a hope, even as I knew Clinton would lose a tie to a GOP majority-led House.
The latest run of Veep was taken over by showrunner David Mandel as series creator Armando Iannucci abdicated. “The comedy of Veep and Selina Meyer is her never getting what she wants,” he told Vulture in an interview. I didn’t realize how prophetic that would be.
Season Five of Veep covers not a full year but a handful of weeks as Selina schemes and threatens and back-alley deals her way through a recount and a loss. VP Doyle’s last second betrayal was like FBI Director James Comey’s sudden email revelation a mere two weeks before the election, except far less inane.
Finally when Laura Montez arrives on scene to steal her presidential thunder, you can’t help but think about what this really means. Montez is the first woman fully elected to be president, and a minority to boot. She somehow brokers a peace deal with China to free Tibet on the day of her inauguration. She is the presidency that America truly needs. The Season Five finale is a truly sad thing as Selina struggles to make her peace with abject failure and a slide towards ignominy and irrelevance. The ending is truly sad.
I watched Trump’s victory with the same ineluctable sadness. I felt gutted by the process. Clearly our country had felt a torrent of anger, and in the weeks and months and four years to follow, we will find out more of what that is. Perhaps it is a resentment of a liberal elite, a disgust with the swamp of Washington politics. Maybe it was about race or women or just Hillary Clinton the person.
I am not political and I don’t enjoy politicians. Watching it unfold onscreen through the comedic shenanigans of brilliant actors and actresses was an incredibly thrilling, richly satirical game, a huge tactical chess battle in multiple dimensions with dozens of players. I thought I was watching the same thing as we marched on to four more years of an Obama administration. But the problem with politics is that they aren’t a game and that was to be evident.
I think about the scene of Selina in the final episode, dimmed in the shadows of a late White House night as she laments to Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett that she should have relied on more people like him, one of the good ones like him, because I too want to be drunk on the floor, hoping that Trump relies on an army of Spletts. As usual, America elected the president it deserves, and it was somehow far less funny and far more heartbreaking than I ever thought it would be.