Sunday nights in April have become, thanks to HBO’s spring slate, simultaneously blissful and anxiety-inducing. We’re a nation obsessed with Game of Thrones, for example, but also scarred by its penchant for whacking our favorite characters willy-nilly.
But while the fantasy epic’s propensity for shocking beheadings, murders, and erstwhile bloodsport has become the stuff of legend, it’s actually the network’s Emmy-nominated half-hour comedy about a bunch of hapless egomaniacs in the White House that was responsible for last season’s gutsiest twist.
At the end of Season Three, Veep forsook its own name. Selina Meyer became president.
The genius twist, and the hilarity that ensued, quickly upstaged HBO’s other series on the merits of its sheer ballsiness. The very premise of Veep is that Vice President Selina Meyer, played to vein-popping perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is relentlessly frustrated by her lame duck second-in-command position: so close to power, but actually wielding none.
Making her president in the two-part Season Three finale does more than fly in the face of the series’ title—it sets it on a new creative direction entirely. Selina is suddenly the most powerful person in the free world.
Of course, Veep and its creator Armando Iannucci have a penchant for unexpectedly bold comedy—glorious arias of four-letter words and middle fingers flipped in the face of sitcom convention. As Selina Meyer says herself in the finale, she is now “the fucking president.” But with Veep premiering its fourth season April 12, what does that mean for the future of the show?
For one, don’t expect everyone to hail to the fucking chief.
“It could be the shortest presidency in history,” Iannucci tells The Daily Beast, hinting that Selina’s crack team of political bozos is liable screw everything up.
What’s more, even though Selina is acting president, she still needs to be elected in November if she wants to keep the office—an uphill battle if there ever was one. (As Season Three ends, she finishes in third place at the New Hampshire primaries. “Even the Nazis came in second” is the season’s final line.)
With the complete third season of Veep now available on DVD and Blu-Ray and the fourth season premiere blessedly close, we picked Iannucci’s brain about the surprise decision to give Selina her promotion, how that will both help and hurt her campaign, and what lessons Hillary Clinton could learn from Veep’s fictional first female president on her quest to attain the feat herself. (Selina Meyer isn’t the only one suffering from a sense of entitlement…)
I think a lot of people were shocked by the decision to make Selina president. At what point when you were mapping out the season did you think that this wasn’t just possibly a good idea, but that it was good enough that you were going to do it?
We may even have started shooting when I thought, “Well, it’s heading towards an election so we are going to have to face this at some point.” Two things I thought: I didn’t want the campaigning to flow too much into another season beyond this. But also there’s an element where you think people might work out what will happen in the election. So why don’t we throw that carpet out from people’s feet before they had a chance to think about it by making the thing [Selina become president] happen before the election. That was really the thinking. And I do like to end each season with something that does transform the dynamic, to get you salivating for the next season because it’s going to be a different atmosphere.
The staging of the scene where she finds out she’ll be president is interesting. Selina’s wanted this so badly that you’d expect her to be jumping up and down. But instead her first reaction is, “But where is POTUS going to live?”
We discussed this a lot. We thought it would be a mixture of confusion and it not being quite real, not taking it in. It’s the sort of thing that’s going to take her 24 hours before it really hits her. Again, all our thinking along the way was, “Let’s make happen the last thing you’d expect to happen under those circumstances.” So let’s have her not jumping up and down with glee when she gets that news. Let’s actually have her a bit confused. Let’s have her ending up on the floor in the bathroom with Gary’s nose bleeding, because that’s really the last thing you’d expect would happen when she’s told. It’s just trying to find something that feels real but also feels completely surprising in those moments.
The series seems to delight in tempering the characters’ big victories with embarrassing moments. Whether it’s staging that scene with Gary in the bathroom, or Selina’s shoes squeaking when she’s going to address the public for the first time.
With these big moments, it’s about asking, “In reality, what would happen?” Well, they would be worried about things. They would want things to look right. They would want to get things right. And they won’t always do it. Also, on a day-by-day basis when we’re filming, things crop up. It may have been that Julia had squeaky shoes on one day and we looked at each other and thought, “There’s an idea.” And you just put it on the board as an idea to use at the right moment. Those are always useful. I remember Julia saying a couple years back, “I can do this twitch with my eye. We should do this twitch at some point.” It was all about waiting for the right moment when this twitch could become an issue.
A lot was made about the brilliance of the show’s initial idea, the frustration that arises when the vice president is so close to power, but really has none.
Yeah, and once having been powerful, too. Having been a senator and having power and influence, and having that taken away from you even though you’ve formally had a promotion.
When you make the decision to promote Selina to president, you also decide to give her the power that she’s been clamoring for. Did you think about how that would change the tension that was at the source of the series when you created it? The thirst for power?
At the end of every season there’s an element of something that changes the dynamic. There’s the element at the end of the second season, being told that the president isn’t going to run for a second term. So she’s not going to be vice president for eight years, just four years. That element gives her a fresh burst of energy. Then finding out that she is president gives her a fresh burst of energy.
And that energy carries her into Season Four?
It’s all about running for president while being president, and trying to figure out which task is easiest and which one is the inconvenience. Because sometimes you find out that it’s inconvenient that she’s president, because she’s got to make decisions that come back to bite her while she runs for president.
When you were first thinking about this show and in the early years of it, were you thinking about what kind of fun you might have if you ever made her president?
I didn’t think that far in. But certainly after the first series, we thought OK, we’ve now got to widen the scope of the show. So it’s not just about being in a very limited office. It’s all about OK, what happens if you are given access to the West Wing and to military operations. And then in the third season, let’s get you out and meeting people all about the country. Let’s have you make decisions about what your views are on highly sensitive and controversial issues. Let’s see what happens when you actually come out in favor or against something. It’s taking it away from there being a danger that beyond Season One, if it was just about how limited her role of vice president was, you’d run out of steam after a second season. It’s about reinvigorating and saying OK, we’ve looked at that, now what’s the next big thing of American politics we should look at?
So what’s that for Season Four?
Season Four we look at, among other things, the whole world of lobbying and money. The donors and the whole lobby industry come in for a very, very close examination.
I’ve read before that sometimes when you’re between seasons, you’ll find a nugget of inspiration in the real-life news. Did anything like that happen while you were planning for Season Four?
Well, we don’t take from real life. It’s more, if anything, we tend to do things and then they happen in real life. Season Four opens with Selina giving her first address as president to a joint session and there’s trouble with her Teleprompter and she has to improvise. We wrote it, shot it, and edited it and then something similar happened to Sarah Palin not so long ago. But we didn’t plan it. We didn’t base it on the Sarah Palin incident. We actually shot it many months ago. If anything we try to avoid anything that would feel too similar to something that might have happened.
Why shy away from real-life political events?
Because we don’t want it to seem like a parody or satire of that incident. There are things though, like when Rick Perry forgot his other department, we kind of touched on that when she was trying to remember her three Rs. But she got away with that on stage, so it wasn’t a big mistake on her part. But it was something I’m sure that viewers half-recognized as something that happened in real life. We’ll occasionally hint at moments like that. But then in the very first season she was under fire for her emails so she had all her emails released and the federal government had to read them all. And Hillary Clinton’s going through that right now. It happened to Selina four years ago. It’s surreal. Nothing you can come up with is as crazy as something that has actually happened in real life. That’s what you discover.
In D.C. politics, there’s a lot of turnover in a politician’s team when they reach new positions of power. How do you believably keep these characters around on Veep with Selina becoming president?
That assumes that we have! There will be some new faces. And some familiar faces will have some things happen to them. Something we were very much aware of when we started the research of what happens when you go from the vice presidency to the presidency was that suddenly the team that was a good campaign team is the one that you want as president. Bill Clinton got rid of some really loyal people who had been with him from the governor’s mansion in Arkansas and through the campaign, and then when he became president he took them aside and said, “You know what, I don’t think you’re up for this.” You do get a sense through Season Four there will be a lot of change and churn. People coming in, people going out. The revolving door.
Towards the end of last season, a piece is about to run trashing Selina and she has a great monologue about how she doesn’t deserve this. Entitlement is such a big part of all of their characters.
There was a scene we shot in an earlier episode that we never showed where she says to Ben, “It’s my turn.” She’s asked, “Why do you want to be president?” “Because it’s my turn.” That’s fundamentally what she thinks. She thinks it’s obvious. “I’m next…Why isn’t this easy?”
In an interesting parallel, Saturday Night Live recently spoofed Hillary Clinton’s own sense of entitlement that she deserves to be president.
That air of “I am going to be the first woman president of the United States. You do know that. Have you forgotten that?”
That sketch also centered on how to make her relatable and endearing in the face of that entitlement. You do that with Selina. How do you do that so that, as an audience, we’re not repulsed by Selina?
There’s a vulnerability to her as well. She’s not a bad person. She doesn’t want to commit any crimes or have people killed. In her head she feels that she’s the one who will do a good job. So therefore whatever it takes to get her into the office, the country will benefit from. But also watching her I think you say to yourself, “Well, would I do it any differently if I was in her position? Would I be any better?” That air. She’s not a monster. You can tell when she’s upset. You can tell when she does have loyalty to people, and others she feels she could do without.
Do you think that Hillary Clinton can make that entitlement endearing?
I don’t know her well enough to answer that. It’s something the Clintons are going to have to think about, isn’t it? Doing all my research, talking to people at the State Department, they only had good things to say about her as a boss. She’s probably one of these people who suffers from having a public image different from the private image. Trying to match the two is always a problem, I think.
When people talk about this show, they focus a lot on the amount of cursing in it. Did you ever expect that to be such a talking point?
No, I wasn’t! I was thinking this is on HBO. If you watch The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm, you get all this language. I was expecting it to sneak in under the wire, really. You look at an episode of Deadwood and you’ve got extraordinary cursing going on. Maybe because it’s someone like Julia, people weren’t expecting that. I don’t know.
For as much cursing as there is, it’s quite a feat that you manage to make it not seem gratuitous.
Yeah. Well, we try to always make it inventive. It’s not so much the word as the language around it. So if it was just eff this or eff that all the time, it would get tedious. I do try and temper it. And there are certain characters that don’t swear. And I make sure they don’t swear because I don’t believe they would. And how they swear, each one swears a different way.
Like a symphony of cursing.
It’s like each one has their own swearing instrument.
Lastly, I wanted to ask about the final line of Season Three and what it portends to Season Four: “I came in third, Amy. Even the Nazis came in second.”
It really is about how she’s got an uphill battle even though she’s president. It could be the shortest presidency in history, because it’s not good. She might get a bump in the polls for being president. Or is the presidency a handicap to have when you’re running for president? There’s that element. Or is she tempted to use the presidency in a way that’s slightly unpresidential if she’s getting desperate? Going into Season Four, that’s really what we’re looking at to start with. And there’s also the realization that you are president so there are far, far bigger stakes at play. Decisions you make now really do have worldwide consequences.