One of the better things about the inaugural season of Veep was that it felt like a long-overdue response to the platitudes and self-congratulatory tones that made The West Wing a sometimes irritating viewing experience. Where Aaron Sorkin’s series imagined a version of American governance as grimly plotted and fraught as an actual piece of health-care legislation, Armando Iannucci’s alternative reimagining takes the absurdity and incompetencies of D.C. politicking to comedic heights. The show’s second season continues to build on an ability to combine a distinct sense of comedic rhythm and pace with biting satire.
Season two follows Vice President Selena Myer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she pursues a more expanded leadership role in the administration following a disastrous midterm election. Despite a loss of congressional seats and a dip in the president’s approval ratings, the VP is sparked by a slight gain in her own public approval, and of course, her narcissistic tendencies tend to bite her in the ass along the way, turning what should be moments of earned success into moments of deflating embarrassment. In the premiere, Selena clashes with the president’s stern senior strategist, Kent Davison (Gary Cole), the only person separating her from direct access to joint meetings with the commander in chief. His dour disposition is a welcome foil to Selena’s sometimes exaggerated impetuousness, and the dynamic between the two sets up the season with an interesting course for the vice president’s development as a character.
Portraying an ambitious politician for whom the actual responsibilities of her job are beyond her proficiency, Louis-Dreyfus consistently hits comedic notes beyond the range of many of her television contemporaries. And it isn’t a disservice to Louis-Dreyfus to say that her well-deserved Emmy award for the role is in many ways a reflection of the quality of the supporting cast. Comedic ensembles are only as good as the material they’re given, and in the hands of Tony Hale, Anna Chlumksy, Reid Scott, Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons, and Sufe Bradshaw, Selena’s staff is a circus of well-drawn personalities whose shared ambitions and affections for the vice president balance out Veep’s otherwise caustic sensibilities.
This dysfunctional family dynamic plays out well in the episode “Signals,” in which Selena makes a visit to Gastonia, North Carolina to rub shoulders with some citizens at a Pig Pickin’ Hoedown as part of the administration’s new “Listen to Rural America” program. The VP must rely on her man-child assistant, Gary (Hale), her douchebag White House liaison, Jonah (Simons), and her thoroughly incompetent communications director, Mike (Walsh), to protect her from any awkward or potentially injurious social interactions with the public. “I don’t want to get stuck talking pig shit with people who use hay as furniture!” Selena grouses. Things run smoothly until she’s called to respond to the media backlash to some strongly worded opinions about Israel expressed by her daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), in a college essay that goes viral. Mike and Jonah scramble to mitigate the snowballing effects of the situation, “deporting” a rather non-kosher visual of the vice president speaking to news cameras about Israeli policy with a pig roasting on a spit behind her. The cast’s highly attuned instincts for knowing when to press complicated dialogue into kinetic banter and when to dial back to find the subtlety in a one-liner joke is what keeps Veep’s humor vital. Such agile modulations in comedic pitch help the series unfold like a much more satisfying version of American diplomacy.