In the new season of Veep, President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) battles for reelection after an electoral college tie. She gets a new boyfriend, a rich Wall Street lobbyist, and weathers public scrutiny over his influence in the Oval Office; she has a Twitter mishap where she sends the whole world a message intended to be private; there’s some business with a poor makeup job for a stress pimple. It’s the same brand of political farce the HBO show has excelled at for five years, but the jokes feel a little off, the verbal barbs tamer than before. Which prompts the quest: Is Veep losing its edge? Or has the world of politics just gotten too crazy for the spoof version to keep up?
It might be a cliché at this point to note that the 2016 election cycle has been so ludicrous that it transcends parody. Saturday Night Live can’t deliver a Donald Trump impression that comes close to nailing the outsize bombast of the man himself. Similarly, if Veep had tried to present the political success of a Trump-type or a Bernie Sanders clone in previous years, it would have felt unrealistic and goofy. Not so much anymore. The show’s fifth season is still sharp, well-plotted, and peppered with laugh-out-loud moments of obscenity. But like so much current satire—from SNL to The Daily Show to Scandal’s Donald Trump analogue—it’s struggling to match the unpredictable political pulse of the moment.
It’s perhaps a surprising turnaround after last year’s season, the first to feature Meyer as the President (after her boss resigns over a health issue). That shift gave Veep a surge of energy just as it was beginning to get into a familiar story rhythm. While the first three seasons delighted in the obscurity of the vice president’s role and the incompetence of Meyer’s staff, the fourth season had much higher stakes. Suddenly, their political decisions actually mattered, and their screw-ups could have real global impact. Meyer and company could still be blundering fools, but the satire felt all the more caustic as a result.
Since season four, the Veep creator Armando Iannucci (a titan of British TV comedy who worked on shows like The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, and The Thick of It) has departed to new projects, leaving the show in the capable hands of his writing lieutenants. But the loss is still deeply felt. In the first four episodes provided to press, Meyer’s screw-ups feel a little more basic, and their real-world influences a little more obvious. The mis-sent tweet is blamed on anonymous Chinese hackers, recalling Congressman Anthony Weiner’s flailing attempts to distract from his sexting scandal. Episode-long stories about pimples or a misbegotten juice cleanse, which troubles the press secretary Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh) in one episode, lack the narrative intricacy this show often excels at.
More importantly, there’s a little less humanity to this season, something that Iannucci and his cast (who improvise much of the show’s dialogue) really tapped into once Meyer became president. Her relationship with the embittered veteran Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) had an emotional grounding beyond their profane interchanges of dialogue; robotic factotums like Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw) and Kent Davison (Gary Ross) finally served a purpose beyond simple exposition. Most fascinating were the arcs of Dan Egan (Reid Scott) and Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), veterans of the VP’s office suddenly thrust into the world of lobbying; this year, they’re both back on the inside and all the more cynical for it.
There’s still fun to be had. Louis-Drefyus’s Selina Meyer is one of the funniest characters of TV’s last decade, and she can still convey so much emotion (usually negative emotions) with a look. Dan and Amy’s on-again, off-again romantic tension is a surprisingly strong narrative hook for the first part of the new season, and there’s real drama in the vagaries of ballot-counting laws. Following on from a 269-269 electoral college deadlock, the show’s first arc concentrates on a recount in Nevada that could swing victory Meyer’s way; like every political drama in TV history (from The West Wing to Scandal), Veep is sure to satisfy anyone looking to indulge in some speculative election fiction.
That arc, which sees the gangly Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) suddenly forced to take a backseat to his assistant, the nerdy Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), who turns out to have a doctorate in electoral law, is a funny new twist. Other new plotlines, including the introduction of a barmy political veteran played by Martin Mull, fall flatter—the twist involving his character is almost instantly obvious. Hugh Laurie’s Tom James, the annoyingly competent vice presidential candidate on Meyer’s ticket, is disappointingly backgrounded early on. An ongoing plotline in which Meyer’s daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) begins filming everything around her as a purported documentary project bodes poorly from the start, and doesn’t feel imaginative from a storytelling perspective. Veep’s trademark insults remain as creative and cruel ever, and there’s still plenty of White House fantasy fun. But if the show wants to stay relevant, it’s going to have to get even crazier—or the real world will soon be leaving it behind.