Veep's New Presidential Power

The HBO comedy series is back with bigger stakes and more competent charactersand the show is better for it.

Patrick Harbron/HBO

Historically, the biggest problem Veep always had was that Selina Meyer’s mistakes didn’t really matter. That was the joke inherent in the title, of course—for all the symbolism and staffers that came with being the vice president, Selina largely operated as a meaningless functionary trotted out for photo opportunities and minor policy announcements. The show's creator, Armando Iannucci, used the position to satirize the essential meaninglessness of Washington echo-chamber politicking, but also to give Veep an almost old-fashioned sitcom quality: Selina would try to accomplish something, she and her staff would screw everything up, and at the end of the day they’d look like idiots, only to move on to the next mistake. The comedy was largely predictable, in that the stakes for everyone involved were low.

They're not anymore. In Veep’s fourth season, which premiered Sunday on HBO, the blundering Selina has found herself in the Oval Office after the surprise resignation of the (unseen) former president. She’s still campaigning to retain the office, something she was doing a fairly miserable job at before she took over, but no longer is she just a grinning hairdo summoned for the cameras. She’s negotiating peace deals with Israel, traveling to Iran to free journalists from prison, and giving speeches to joint sessions of Congress (as seen in the premiere).

Of course, when she gives the speech the teleprompter freezes up and she has to improvise a bunch of nonsense. The comedy isn’t gone—it just has a lot more tension accompanying it. Veep has always been an expertly funny, beautifully acted show, one that shied away from table-bashing on particular political positions (viewers still have no idea which party Selina belongs to) to more broadly satirize the emptiness of every Washington staffer and elected official. If Curb Your Enthusiasm was the spiritual forbear of Iannucci’s acidic BBC comedy The Thick of It, then Seinfeld was Veep’s—never polemical, interested more in the byzantine rules of social interaction than their consequences.

But now that Selina is the president, Veep is starting to morph into its predecessor, in a good way. The Thick of It looked at Britain’s halls of power in a similar manner: focusing on the strategic team of a fairly small-fry cabinet member who'd usually end up doing more harm than good as he vainly attempted to clamber up the greasy pole. The antagonist was the spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), who’d blaze into the office with orders from the Prime Minister, and in later seasons the show shifted its focus to him and became a sweeping look at British politics at the end of the Blair era.

Veep will never ascend to that territory, partly because of its lack of specificity—in The Thick of It, knowing which political party everyone belongs to is crucial to the satire. But Veep has grown every year by investing Meyer with more and more competence. Having an utterly venal fool in a position of power in D.C. might be too depressing to watch on a weekly basis, so while Meyer’s staff bumbles through scandal after scandal, viewers laugh at her pained reactions and ethical corner-cutting—perhaps it’s strange that the President of the United States is this show’s audience surrogate, but it works.

It helps that the characters around Selina have similarly developed a strange sort of competence. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott) remain amoral, work-obsessed psychotics, but they ultimately trip up because of their ambition rather than their lack of skill. Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), now press secretary, remains a bit of an oaf, but this year viewers glimpse him confidently commanding reporters from behind the White House podium, even as he grooms a mustache that’s obviously dyed bright red. And in one of the show’s most powerful moments to date, Selina’s body-man Gary (Tony Hale), somewhat stymied by the security clearance demands of her new job, stands up to her when she calls him out for incompetence, reminding her that for all his foibles, he’s as crucial to her as a vital organ.

Even more crucial are characters added in later seasons, as Iannucci and his staff realized Veep couldn't depend exclusively on obscene dressings-down of the gangly presidential aide Jonah (Timothy Simons, still hilarious in every scene he graces). Now that Selina is president, she commands the automatic respect of former enemies like Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn), who now serves as her chief of staff and her most phlegmatic adviser. Veep is hardly a show about friendship, but over the years it's done well to emphasize the strange bonds that form between staffers, even as they're consistently trying to one-up each other.

It’s not exactly loyalty—indeed, all characters are at constant risk of losing their jobs, and some do in spectacularly brutal fashion—so much as wartime comradeship. But in every prior season of Veep, the biggest casualty could still only be the vice president, and the risk of her doing anything meaningfully good or bad to the country was miniscule. Perhaps the show shouldn’t be funnier now that Selina can bring about something as catastrophic as a nuclear war with the simplest of gaffes. But it is.