'Veep' Reinvents Itself In The Shape Of A New Humiliation
Note: This piece discusses the plot details from the sixth-season premiere of Veep.
When Veep began, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was a vice-president chafing against the limitations of her office and the indignities of her insignificance. Any whiff of the presidency was intoxicating, with its promise of absolute power and vindication for everything she had endured to get to what was supposed to be the second most powerful position in the government. She found it to be instead a parade of clowns and sycophants, and she held her frustrations at the back of her throat until she could spit them out at her staff.
Her dream was the presidency. One emergency later, it was hers. But then, in a humiliating defeat, all was again lost, which brings us to the premiere of the series' sixth season, which aired on HBO Sunday night.
We find Selina and her mostly former staff a year after she was unceremoniously dethroned. She has been out of public view, but now, she's returning — first with an interview on CBS This Morning, where her former staffer Dan (Reid Scott) is a fill-in host still trying to get a media career off the ground. Jonah (Timothy Simons) is still in Congress, where he seems to be miserable, while Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is campaign-managing again in very different circumstances. Ben (Kevin Dunn) is troubleshooting for Uber, Mike (Matt Walsh) is home with his kids, and only the faithful, apparently self-loathing Gary (Tony Hale) is still by Selina's side, clutching his briefcase.
By the end of the season premiere, a surprising thing has happened: Selina has come full circle. It's as if she overshot her goal. She rose improbably, sat at the top briefly, and then sailed right back down into her old feelings of persecution and futility. Once, she was a vice-president who envied the president. Now, she's a former president who envies not only the current president, but all the former presidents who command more respect — and higher speaking fees — than she does. She has to borrow money from her daughter (Sarah Sutherland), who inherited all the family wealth when her mother skipped over Selina entirely.
Naturally, all this sends Selina to the only place she can think of: running for president again. The most effective runner in the episode is Gary groaning, squirming, sighing, grunting, and otherwise doing absolutely everything he can think of to avoid telling Selina that running for president again is the worst idea he can think of, not only because he cares about her, but because he clearly cannot bear the thought of going through a presidential campaign with her again.
One quality Veep shares with HBO's Silicon Valley is that both have a tendency to paint themselves into corners in which it appears that some resolution has been reached that will challenge the fundamentals of the premise. Silicon Valley began with a startup seeking success: what happens when they find it? Veep began with a woman writhing in misery because she isn't president; what happens when she is? But both shows have demonstrated again and again a firm commitment to resetting in a way that's fresh enough to propel a new story but still faithful to the way the characters have been drawn. By making Selina frustrated and small and unappreciated in a different way with a different set of scenarios that could play out — lobbying, campaigning, writing her memoir, speaking, or getting another job entirely — Veep has played to its strengths without repeating itself. There's an echo in this episode of the old scenes where she would ask her assistant whether the White House had called; now, she asks if there are messages.
The answer is still "no."
Any temptation to make Selina likable is refreshingly dodged — if anything, she's more oblivious and self-absorbed and particularly self-pitying than ever. It's quite a balancing act to make the underdog journey of an unpleasant and largely amoral person into something worth watching. But the fearlessness with which Veep makes Selina a compelling figure of frustration and futility whether or not her complaints are at all sympathetic has kept it on track for five seasons — and now, into a sixth.