HBO’s Veep has always offered up a funhouse-mirror version of U.S. politics—an effacing fantasy of the incompetence and vulgarity that lurks beneath the polished façades of our ruling class. Its politicians perform barely passable kabuki theater for the electorate’s benefit, and the joke is on the populace that accepts it as genuine. Naturally, most of the response to Veep’s sixth season will focus on how it, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, adapts to the real-world erosion of conventions it’s spent five years gleefully subverting. The truth is that it doesn’t, at least in any meaningful way. Instead, it zeroes in on the collapse of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), searching for humor in the meaningless symbols she clings to like driftwood in the ocean of her diminished significance.
The show’s new season finds Selina struggling to preserve her flimsy legacy while stubbornly weighing another presidential bid. Without the drama built into running a country or campaigning for office, Veep is more democratic, splitting its time between Selina’s pathetic crusade for relevance, her old associates and their new worlds, and the farcical congressional career of frenemy Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons). Her erstwhile aides are spread across the adjacent political landscape, mirroring the fates of real-world figures from former presidential administrations: Ben (Kevin Dunn) struggles in a brief consulting job with Uber; Amy (Anna Chlumsky) runs the Nevada gubernatorial campaign of her fiancé; Dan (Reid Scott) co-anchors a morning news show; Gary (Tony Hale) is characteristically glued to Selina’s side.
Ben’s Silicon Valley culture shock, Dan’s power struggle with his mercurial co-star, and Jonah’s congressional hazing provide new fodder for Veep’s beyond the claustrophobic halls of power. After five seasons, the show’s limited context began to constrain comedic potential; now its characters are free to wreak havoc in an exponentially larger environment.
The season picks up a year after Selina’s historic loss and subsequent breakdown; she’s returned to the public eye with no tangible purpose other than her own compulsion. A run-down office in the South Bronx and an unfocused philanthropic endeavor—the Meyer Foundation for Adult Literacy, Aids, and the Spread of Democracy—make up her negligible stake in the public universe, one that proves smaller than even Selina’s most pessimistic projections after her idea for a presidential library is met with indifference.
Veep hints at the toxic careerism we imagine hiding beneath the surface of politics.
Selina was always driven by politics instead of policy, and her ambition was entirely naked. Now, it’s her complete lack of pretense—or shame—that defines her struggle to preserve a legacy. She asks for her library to be informed by John F. Kennedy’s, because “he was a part-termer too.” She wants a presidential portrait but can’t sit still long enough to pose for it. If Selina can keep moving, keep cursing, keep operating, she won’t disappear forever. Veep exists to savage the decorum we imagine exists mostly as cover for the moral decay at the heart of politics, and that same acerbity is tailor-made for these new contrivances—the memoirs, libraries, foundations.
Selina’s bald ambition and disdain for decency echoes that of Donald Trump, but Veep rarely constructs its satire with straight-line comparisons. The character is more a response to Hillary Clinton, or at least the idea that many retain of her as a calculated political shark with questionable ethics. Selina is one logical extension of the former secretary of state: an early storyline this season finds her foundation receiving questionable foreign donations; her Bronx headquarters recalls Clinton’s Harlem offices; and she’s even rendered a pariah of the women’s rights community due to her husband’s infidelity.
That dim reflection of Hillary results in a truly fresh addition to Veep: pathos. The show’s characters have always been reprehensible, hilarious, and sad, but, completely devoid of agency, they’re somehow pitiable. Selina’s been stripped of both actual “hard power” and the softer variety, resigned to constantly pleading her case: She was the first female president, damnit. The title is all that she ever wanted, so it’s all she ever got. But titles are temporary. Nobody is waiting on the Meyer Memoirs; instead, they mostly appear to be waiting for her to fade away.
Veep hints at the toxic careerism we imagine hiding beneath the surface of politics like a monster under the bed. The show’s humor succeeds in spite of that alarming proposition, because the characters ultimately fail, and that failure is as reassuring as it is hysterical. It acts as a constant reminder that it’s okay to laugh, that none of this is real. In that way, the show’s latest season upholds tradition: What’s bad for Selina is good for the audience.