How Donald Trump ruined Veep

In the current political climate, Veep's foul-mouthed narcissism is no longer as intrinsically amusing

Veep is back.
(Image credit: HBO/Justin M. Lubin)

Veep — Armando Iannucci's American riff on his BBC show The Thick Of It, featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as pathological narcissist-cum-president Selina Meyer — returns on Sunday for its sixth and strangest season. The Emmy-drenched show, a comedy of invective whose satire has long been too broad to bite, will follow a political loser as she tries to spin something like a legacy out of her brief stint in power.

If that sounds like a tantalizing exploration of Hillary Clinton's life after the election (or even Trump's after he leaves office), it shouldn't: Veep remains committed to goofy irrelevance and elaborate insults. This was always a show that subliminally assumed a Clinton presidency was in the offing, took "America's First Female President" for granted, and spun out on the premise that political women are every bit as terrible as political men. It exists, that is to say, in a political reality entirely at odds with the one that produced this photo of men stripping women's reproductive care posted by the actual Veep.

The show sticks to that alternative timeline — and that alternative political climate — for its final season, and that's a shame. If the show's satire was a little marshmallowy before, the incongruity between our absurd political moment and Veep's makes the show feel less sharp than it otherwise might. When a show's loopy humor — specifically meant to dispel any shred of a reality principle — becomes real, weird things happen to its satire. Last year, "the president is tweeting" was a joke on Veep. That scene is a lot less funny now.

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It's not Veep's fault, of course, that the political climate changed underneath it, and perhaps it's unfair to hold a political satire to this high (or low) a standard; after all, Veep is a comedy first, sometimes even a bold one. The fifth season concluded with Meyer — almost unbelievably — voted out of office. It was a risky choice, and the finale showed the merry band of misfits that constituted her entourage disbanded, apparently for good. That's a hard narrative problem to unscramble, and the show knew it: It kept teasing us with possible resets: Maybe Selina Meyer would be Veep again! Nope. Ultimately, the series doubled down on the total dissolution of Meyer's political hopes, and of the premise that would keep its cast believably intact. That kind of explosive annihilation of a premise is brave, though not unprecedented: The Thick of It let people drop out of the show and evolved past them.

Veep seemed to start down that same road, but it gets cold feet. The sixth season spends a lot of energy trying to find ways to put the cast it scattered to the four winds back in the same room. The series seems to regret exploding its premise and won't let its ensemble go. That's understandable — it's a great comedy team! — but then they shouldn't have blown up the plot structure that lets them organically coexist. Like Selina, the show doesn't seem to know quite what it's supposed to be doing.

That said, the series is funny in the way Veep is always funny: The show is quick and the jokes come at a speed not seen since Arrested Development. I could watch Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale play off each other all day. Their timing and coordination is almost vaudevillian, they're so in sync. I was thrilled, too, to see Sally Phillips return as the Finnish Prime Minister; in fact, all the show's cameos continue to be terrific — Amy Brenneman is never not magnificent, and it's always nice to see Stephen Fry.

But the situations feel contrived, the premise distorted. By eagerly following Dan and Amy and Jonah around in their new jobs, the show sacrifices a lot of the callow indifference that powered it. It gives away the extent to which it's fallen in love with its own characters — characters who frankly aren't that lovable.

I wish the series had ended with season five — Catherine's documentary would have been a brilliant conclusion. It would have struck exactly the right tone, with a multiplicity of perspectives and a total lack of politics. It would have been delivered through Catherine's particular manifestation of Selina's hereditary narcissism, the poignant documentation of Selina's defeat, and with Catherine's delightfully incestuous and vapid conclusion that what mattered most about all this was that she got to kiss the sister she never knew she had. Unlike The Thick of It, Veep has been the fluffiest satire on television in ages, and that was paramount fluff. Instead, the show limps on. Having never cared much about messaging, its final season has even less to say, but it says it from a comedic angle that feels half-dead. Call it zombie humor: the kind that doesn't take into account that when a real foul-mouthed narcissist-cum-president is in office, foul-mouthed narcissism isn't as intrinsically amusing.

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