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How the Trump Era Wrecked ‘Veep’ (Column)

Veep” has, for most of its run, steered clear of explicit real-world references: Its characters are interviewed by fictional journalists, as opposed by CNN stars dropping by for a cameo, and never seem to reference presidents more recent than Nixon. They don’t have stated political parties. Against this backdrop of simplified surreality, the show earned praise early on for capturing a D.C. of the mind, a show that had tonal similarities to the way we imagine politicians behave behind closed doors. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was in the show’s first four or so seasons a pathetic, grasping figure who generated instant comedy through her feckless quest for praise and attention; the team around her were practically as vain and as inept as she was, and together they stumbled towards the Oval Office. Alone among the wave of politically-minded shows that debuted in the thick of Obama’s presidency — “House of Cards,” “Homeland,” “Scandal” — it had nothing, really, to say about the hopes or fears of the moment. It played in realities that stayed true about politics, and about people, through the years.

It seems apparent that the praise “Veep” got for summing up the tone of politics generally has led it to believe it must make a more direct comment — even though that’s not what the show has historically done well, and even though it doesn’t have much to say. What it does try to articulate comes out incomprehensible, a sort of primal scream of rage that doesn’t just grapple towards comment on our Trump-obsessed political moment but feels gruesomely of it. Last week’s episode included a sequence in which Amy (Anna Chlumsky) morphed into a Kellyanne Conway figure with teased hair, and a rigor-mortis grimace through which smarmy untruths spilled readily. It was a bizarre transformation of not merely Amy’s approach to politics but also her appearance and bearing that suggested “Veep” is now treating its characters like “Saturday Night Live” performers, plugging them into parodic that are disconnected from what came before or after. And like “Saturday Night Live’s” political material, it had little to say but that a famous person sure is distinctive, and it could be funny to see an actor doing what that famous person does. Later, in the most recent episode, Jonah (Timothy Simons), a candidate for President and Amy’s boss, launched a birther-style attack on Selina, asking to see her birth certificate… in order to figure out her age. “When are you from!” he shouted to a crowd of devotees, several of them, noticeably, in red hats.

Again, what was the point here, but to recapitulate a drama from the recent past in a wearily over-it-all way? The real birther saga was not simply a goof on an individual’s vanities — as we learn that Selina does in fact lie about her age — but a racist smear campaign, and “Veep’s” treatment of its version as just part of the daily parrying of politics suggests that it doesn’t really have a handle on this moment at all. The show’s endgame promises, or threatens, to be consumed with a battle over Chinese election interference that may end up feeling as drawn-out as the Mueller report, not least because it’s consuming show time that could go towards closing out any storyline that’s of the show’s world and not just a smeared carbon copy of our own.

Over the course of its run, “Veep” has been two different shows. The first one ended with the conclusion of the fourth season; that show was about the low-level scheming of a painfully ineffectual public servant who cared little about serving the public, and its comedy stemmed from the manner in which her petty, small-bore goals were perpetually thwarted. The second, which began after show creator Armando Iannucci departed and which happened to coincide with Trump emerging as a political force with the power to make those in his orbit speak his language, is about an abusive sociopath aided and abetted by a pack of scoundrels in lofty schemes to defraud and mislead the public. Either of these shows could work, but there’s too little continuity between the two for them to coexist under one title without strain. 

For a while, the shift worked okay, though: Season five had some terrific individual episodes, like “Mother,” which dials closely into Selina’s personal history and psychology as she deals with her mother’s death. And the sheer acidity of replacement showrunner David Mandel’s version of “Veep” has been widely read as a sort of savage intellect, even as it lost sight of the characters that had previously existed, and even as bile falls short of insight or comment. But while the old “Veep” was satisfied with its depiction of Washington as a place on which fragile egos collided — humor that was both specific and painfully universal — new “Veep” has been set on a goal likelier to eke out laughs of recognition, with none of the second beat that makes comedy great.

To wit: When Selina, in the show’s first seasons, waited endlessly for a call from the President, her yearning was hilarious for what it showed us about her character and a whole class of striving people. Part of the joke was that the show’s president was invisible and unknowable, and that his identity didn’t matter — he was just one in a long string, and politics under him would continue as ever they had. Perhaps it’s impossible to make a show that depicts human frailty in D.C. in this moment without succumbing to the new tone emanating from the top. But when Selina, in the most recent season, cracks scabrous jokes about a mass shooting and the ways it’ll help her political fortunes, it’s a joke borne out of loathing — for politicians generally, and for Selina specifically. We don’t know who she is anymore, and who could care? She’s hardly worth knowing. It’s at least an interesting choice to torch the show on its way out, and I’m not arguing Selina deserves better, exactly, but “Veep” used to sit somewhat astride the politics of the time. Now, chasing currency, it’s become a product of them, filled with a gross loathing that’s available just about anywhere else. With two episodes left, there’s a chance the show will reclaim its characters — not redeem them, just show a baseline understanding of who they are and what they want that does something more interesting than directly map onto Trump administration figures. But this many years and this many story evolutions since the show began, that feels perhaps too audacious to hope. 

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