The biggest question plaguing HBO’s political comedy Veep right now is how the hell it’s going to continue finding hyperbolic comedy in the dysfunction of American politics, when the real-life equivalent keeps devolving into unprecedented chaos. After seeing three episodes of the show’s sixth season, which debuts Sunday, April 16, I can safely say the answer seems to be that it’s not even going to try.
Now that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer is no longer the president, Veep no longer has an organic reason to keep mimicking Capitol Hill politics. And at a glance, sidestepping more Washington misadventures might seem like a smart call in light of our reality dovetailing with farce more and more every day. But for Veep, showing how lost its career politicians are now that somebody else is in charge simply underscores how lost the show is too.
In its first few seasons, Veep countered the ruthlessness of Vice President Selina Meyer with the uselessness of her position. But when she suddenly became president at the end of season three after her lame-duck running mate resigned, Selina and her staff’s craven plays for power took on a whole new — and morally horrifying — set of stakes.
Season five (the first without creator Armando Iannucci running the show) ended with Selina being ousted from office through the Senate’s deployment of several arcane rules and legislative coups. The sixth accordingly picks up with former President Meyer and her staff wandering aimlessly through post–Capitol Hill life — emphasis on the “aimlessly.”
Taking Veep out of Washington could’ve been a good idea, but the show ends up as scattered as its frustrated characters
As season six begins, Selina is trying to land lucrative speaking engagements to bring in cash while working out of an office in the South Bronx (she hates it, but it’s supposed to make her seem down to earth or whatever). The only people she’s enlisted to help her as she insists everything is great (it’s not) are her loyal right-hand man/indentured servant Gary (Tony Hale) and pleasant dope Richard Splett (Sam Richardson). While they give Selina the praise and validation she’s always craved — and Hale and Richardson make for reliably funny sidekicks — they’re still not exactly the sharpest of advisers.
Elsewhere, her former chief of staff Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is frightening volunteers in Montana, where she’s overseeing her goober fiancé’s gubernatorial campaign; smarmy aide Dan (Reid Scott) is trying his hand at being a news anchor on CBS This Morning; and press secretary Mike (Matt Walsh) is almost literally juggling three squirming kids. Even wizened strategist Ben (Kevin Dunn) is exploring new opportunities, though a disastrously non-PC meeting at Uber ends his political consulting career before it even gets off the ground.
These stories all make basic sense given what Veep’s characters were up to before Selina was forced out of office. This show has always been about people who are so ambitious that they wouldn’t hesitate to tear down any dumb fuck who got in their way (language theirs, though that doesn’t even touch the creativity of the insults that typically fly around Veep’s Capitol Hill). It’s only natural that with their backs now up against the wall of irrelevance, they’re all scrambling hard to grab whatever scraps of power and influence they can find.
But in practice, their desperation manifests in more random cruelty than ever. Stripping these characters of whatever power they previously had and scattering them to the winds forces everyone into their smallest, meanest selves — which frankly becomes hard to watch, and not in Veep’s usual “cringe because it’s so real” kind of way. I’ve historically treasured some of Veep’s wicked runs more than I have many people in my actual life, but as it turns out, even I have my limits. At least when Selina was in office, everyone was spinning their wheels in something resembling a forward direction.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the only storyline with any real bite belongs to Jonah (Timothy Simons), Veep’s breakout weirdo who stumbled his way into a congressional seat toward the end of last season by staging a campaign that harnessed resentment against President Meyer. Once a presidential intern with delusions of grandeur, Jonah has now achieved that grandeur, and doesn’t have any idea what to do with it beyond his usual endless bragging. His unique combination of hostility and futility has always made him one of Veep’s best characters, and seeing him fumble around Capitol Hill is way more fun than gritting your teeth while everyone else tries (and fails) to adjust to life on the other side.
Still: When I first heard that Veep’s new season would be looking outside Washington for stories, I was tentatively excited. The reality of what’s currently happening in American politics keeps stretching the bounds of credulity in such a way that Veep trying to outdo it could have backfired, and quick. What’s more, Selina dipping into the post-retirement world of lobbying and trying to stay relevant could, in theory, easily share DNA with Veep’s studies in hapless vanity.
But if the first three episodes are any indication, showing just how little Selina and her cohort can function outside Washington — while only sporadically letting them interact with each other, no less — only makes it more obvious how much the show was just as anchored to the trappings of the city’s political theater.
The sixth season of Veep premieres Sunday, April 16, at 10:30 pm on HBO.