In the season premiere of Veep, newly installed President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) addresses a joint session of Congress with the improvisational bluster of a true bullshit artist. As is often true of HBO’s send-up of American politics, created by Armando Iannucci, Meyer’s bungling staff sets the table for disaster, in this case by uploading an incomplete draft of her speech to the teleprompter, but the key to understanding Veep’s impressive evolution comes 24 hours prior. “This is just noise-shaped air,” Meyer’s chief counsel, Dan Egan (Reid Scott), says of the text, long before the president’s inane ad lib. “It’s like a diet soufflé.” Though Veep began as an uneven caricature of the titular position, which former Vice President John Nance Garner famously likened to a “bucket of warm spit,” it’s become a vulgar, merciless satire of the emptiness of power itself, as funny as a knife in the side. Talk about punching up.
The hideous creatures populating Veep, filmed in their Beltway beige surrounds as if by an enterprising verité documentarian, can no longer excuse their vain backbiting as a symptom of the office, and season four hilariously lays blame for a broken system at the feet of a Washington culture that favors pettiness over progress. Meyer’s rage at the mishandling of her address to Congress finds expression in moral fervor (the money planned for an anti-poverty program “is going to fund obsolete, metal, giant dildos,” she says of a moribund submarine project), but in truth she’s unconcerned with anything but the politics of perception, bullying her daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), into abandoning an anti-bullying campaign because she’s afraid it won’t play well in the press. The comic genius of Veep, in its current iteration, resides in this notion that the powerful embrace policies if and only if an issue polls well, or results in the right coverage; the series reads as an only slightly exaggerated portrait of the Washington echo chamber critiqued by the likes of Joan Didion and Jon Stewart. “This is like high school all over again,” Catherine laments to senior strategist Kent Davison (Gary Cole) upon hearing that the public hates her. “Kind of,” he replies. “But much bigger.”
As Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) manages Meyer’s flagging re-election campaign, Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) wrangles the West Wing’s merry band of idiots, and personal aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) begins to feel the sting of the president’s distance, the series reserves its most blistering humor for the universal narcissism on display, always distracting from the real work at hand. For all the brilliant, tossed-off insults and uniformly excellent performances, including Patton Oswalt as a “hands-on” aide to the vice president, the season’s through line is its treatment of politics as a con artist’s medium. Veep redirects the crackling verbal fireworks of The West Wing from Aaron Sorkin’s liberal high dudgeon to the pure cynicism of likability indices, brand images, news cycles, and gaffes, and the comedy comes off because it’s The West Wing, not Veep, that now seems like the Hollywood fantasy.