MAKE AMERICA LAUGH AGAIN
‘Veep’ Captures Hillary Clinton’s Post-Election Purgatory
Would Donald Trump’s election sober the comedy of ‘Veep?’ Would its bold finale twist change the show too much? Nope. It’s still must-see TV.
It’s become so commonplace to talk about how a piece of pop culture is suddenly more relevant and resonant after Donald Trump’s election that the notion has almost become meaningless. But dammit, it couldn’t be more true of Veep.
It’s actually more of a triumph than it might seem that the new season of Veep is as funny and clever as it is in the context of the new administration. Many people, including the stars of the Emmy-winning comedy themselves, worried that cringing might replace laughter when it comes to the self-interested, incompetent, gaffe-prone, America-ruining politicos the series satirizes.
In her Emmy speech last year, Julia Louis-Dreyfus joked that “our show started out as a political satire but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.” In an interview with The Daily Beast, Timothy Simons, who plays Jonah Ryan, joked that, “Now we seem inspirational.”
But the brilliance of Veep has always been that it didn’t merely set out to make you laugh at politicians.
It operates with such an intense and acute understanding of how the world works inside the Beltway—from the people we see on TV down to the orbiting team of climbers that fuels and leeches off them—that, for all the rightful praise about its sharp writing and operatic insults, it’s overlooked how often the show actually predicts real-life political events, ranging from a government shutdown to a POTUS’s errant tweeting.
So, while cheering over the fact that the reliably hilarious comedy is returning Sunday to “make America laugh again,” there’s a fascination with how the show plays in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency and what parts, if any, might seem inspired by it.
But not only was the majority of the season written before Donald Trump was elected, it was written when a victory for Hillary Clinton was ruled a certainty.
So it’s incredibly interesting—and back to that whole marveling at how this show tends to portend real-life political events—that Sunday’s premiere of Veep is more of a “sobering documentary” on Clinton’s post-election life than it is about the Oval Office hijinks overseen by our Cheeto-dusted overlord.
It’s ironic because Veep was going to finally be divorced from the constant microscopic searching for comparisons to Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of State was presumed to be elected president at the same time that the show was writing a season that saw Selina Meyer reckoning with life beyond it.
But now, with Clinton having lost the election and there being such an intense fascination over her first steps in the wake of the loss, the parallels with Veep storylines and Selina are stronger than ever—even though there never was intention or even an inclination that they would be.
Sunday’s premiere opens with Selina giving her first televised interview since her historic loss after an Electoral College tie the year before.
“I’m not going to lie,” Selina tells the morning show host, who happens to be her former aide Dan Egan (Reid Scott) in his new post-election career. “To have gotten so close to the presidency and then have the American people and Congress reject me was, um, was devastating. But I did reacquaint myself with an old friend of mine, by the name of Selina Meyer. And I like her!”
It’s all disingenuous, of course. Selina is miserable. All she craves is power and respect, and now she has none of it. She’s not remembered as the first female vice president in U.S. history and then the first female president in U.S. history, but written off as the woman who only served less than a year in the White House.
Her desperation to reinstate herself back into the national conversation and leave some sort of mark, regardless of her real interest in it—A memoir? A self-funded presidential library? A charitable organization for adult literacy… and AIDS?—is of course characteristically self-serving and off-putting. But it’s also heartbreaking, as her loneliness begins to reveal itself now that no one but Gary (Tony Hale) seems to have use for her since she’s out of office.
It’s enough to make you want to warn Hillary Clinton to go back into the woods and just stay there, where her ego is safe.
The morning show interview is happening on the one-year anniversary of her last day in office, her feelings about which are summed up in her own Selina way: “I feel like we’re celebrating my frat house gang rape. Except I didn’t even get a candle light vigil.”
Over the course of the episode we find out what the rest of the staff is doing. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is the campaign manager for her now-fiancé, a surprising twist but still very much the same Amy: “We are going to make Buddy Calhoun the next governor of this dry coyote turd of a state,” she tells her staffers. (The turd state in question is Nebraska.)
Dan is a TV host. Jonah is still a congressman, speaking out against healthy lunches in schools: “It’s no wonder kids are shooting up schools with lunches like these.” Gary is as devoted to Selina as he’s ever been, while Ben is now working for Uber.
Perhaps bigger than the question of how Veep might handle Donald Trump in its new season was how it would handle the fact that this is a show conceived in large part about the inner workings of the office of the vice president, but now not only is its lead character no longer vice president, she’s not in office at all.
How would it follow the characters when there’s no longer reason for them to interact? More, would the show lose its bite?
It turns out the world of former politicians is as rich, maybe even more so, for skewering than that of current ones—a refreshing change of pace in the pile-on-Trump comedy landscape. It was a ballsy creative decision to do this, and while it’s a bit unsettling at first that the walk-and-talk madness and pace of Selina in the White House has been swapped out for Chinese takeout gab sessions and backgammon with Gary, it quickly becomes an almost voyeuristic joy.
The best Selina moments always charted the dichotomy between how she’d behave when she was performing for an audience versus when she thought nobody was looking or listening. The new season is almost exclusively the latter, enriching what we know and how much we know about Selina. And it’s horrifying.
As Louis-Dreyfus herself said to The Daily Beast, Selina’s position as a woman in politics is made more fascinating by the fact that she is hardly a feminist, or even a cheerleader of her gender peers.
“[Selina] is one of the biggest woman-haters on the show,” she said. “She’s not a fan of women, generally speaking, and will tell you that whining and bitching and moaning about your problems isn’t going to get you anywhere. So it’s funny that for somebody who’s so driven and infuriated by the men who get in her way, she herself is the first to kick a woman down.”
The new season doubles down on that, with Selina recoiling any time someone attempts to attach her legacy to women’s rights or causes, and her discomfort toward any association with being a feminist icon. Negotiating for speaking engagements, she even says, “I am the first female president of the United States and I will not work for less than 87 cents on the dollar. And tell them I’ll stand at a glass podium and wear a short skirt.”
It’s all in jest, of course. But, like everything Veep does, it’s only so funny because of how closely it mirrors the uncomfortable truth.
Sometimes comedy is a distraction. Other times it refocuses and maybe even intensifies what is going in the real world, in ways you think might be awkward but in the end turn out necessary.
Veep, especially now, it turns out, is necessary.