HBO’s ‘Veep’ Mirrors the Political Madness of Our Times for Its Final Season
Just as the very real 2020 presidential race starts to take shape, HBO’s “Veep” returns for an uproarious seventh and final season that’s all about campaigns and elections. The once and possibly future president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is going full throttle towards the ultimate prize, the White House. She had it once, for a year, after being Vice President and landing the Oval Office seat thanks to an old-fashioned Washington scandal. But now she wants to earn it through the ballot box. However in the seven years since the show premiered, electoral politics worldwide have changed for the weirder and the show hilariously adjusts to the blowing winds.
The race is on and Selina and her staff are scoping the field of candidates, trying to rally support (especially of the financial variety) wherever possible and hoping to avoid embarrassment. Everyone on the staff is trying their best, even as their personal lives become messier than any congressional hearing. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) tells Dan (Reid Scott) she’s pregnant, but he prefers she have an abortion. He is having too much fun sleeping around with anyone who comes his way on the campaign trail. Veteran campaign manager Ben (Kevin Dunn) tries to keep everyone enthusiastic but tells Selina if all else fails there’s a gig to support a far-right politician in Sweden. Jumping into the race are two opponents long familiar to fans of the show. Tom James (Hugh Laurie) is the all-American photogenic male candidate, but he might still be harboring passionate feelings for Selina. Then there’s Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), who attempts to cater to the more right-wing electoral base, but is soon mired in allegations of sexual harassment and even incest. Selina scoffs at the notion that she should run on a historic, break the glass ceiling ticket, but when she finally tries to recruit another woman as her running mate it backfires in a way no one could have imagined.
Fans of “Veep” have been waiting for a new season since June 2017, when the show took a hiatus due to star Louis-Dreyfus undergoing cancer treatment. It was a wise choice to take a break, because the series has found its stride again. The sixth season suffered slightly from premiering soon after the inauguration of Donald Trump, when it was palpable that the entire political scene had been turned upside down. The writing is now more than in tune with the times. Watching the first three episodes is like reading Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary election dispatches. We’re on the road with the gang as everyone sits around hotels, campaign offices and stump speech stops. Selina has left the Qatari ambassador who nearly convinced her to settle down last season, now it’s all about winning. She has little time to see her baby grandson, and when a mass shooting takes place she takes it as a miracle to get some good PR. Since we are trapped in wilder terrain in real life, “Veep” sharpens its satirical humor to a higher level of provocation. We learn Ben’s Big Gulps are a cover to mask his raging alcoholism, when Jonah is accused of being married to his stepsister he proclaims that anyone willing to criticize him, better be willing “to criticize Woody Allen and that Chinese girl.” That’s not the lowest Jonah can go, when he tries to run a particular ad, his campaign head Teddy Sykes (Patton Oswalt) complains that, “most people are uncomfortable watching a white man kick a black woman in the vagina.”
What makes “Veep” masterful is how it understands true satire. In this seventh season the show brilliantly tears apart the very nature of campaigning. When Jonah is accused of harassing a staffer years ago, he decides to claim they were dating and his ratings go up. Richard (Sam Richardson) even divides his time secretly between Selina and Jonah’s campaigns, switching buttons when necessary. William Fichtner plays a potential rich donor who takes Selina and Tom’s staffs to a country western getaway. When Selina fumbles on a speech (after Tom proclaims his love minutes before) she complains that this is the most humiliating moment of her life, “and I have been Vice President!” The greatest chortle of a twist so far takes place when Selina tries to tap Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye) as her running mate, only to find out that Kemi is actually going to run against her. “That triracial twat,” is Selina’s response.
“Veep” understands that you can still make great political satire in the Trump era. You just need to ratchet up to the volume. If the show brushes aside political correctness it’s because it knows you need a particular blade to cut through this surreal moment. “The West Wing” just wouldn’t fly today. Selina doesn’t pretend to even care for the American people (or America), what matters is getting the votes and rising in the polls, no matter what. She hints at Tom that maybe they can be together and settle down, if one of them drops out of the race. But there’s a cynically mischievous smile there, and we wonder just how honest she is. “Veep” is aware that’s how politics works. It’s not a game for nice people.
“Veep” season seven premieres March 31 and airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.