This post contains minor spoilers through Season 6, Episode 1 of Veep.
Earlier this month, David Mandel, the current showrunner for Veep, along with several of his fellow political-TV showrunners, gave a group interview to the New York Times. The broad topic was “How to Write TV in the Age of Trump.” The conversation, soon enough, turned to the Teflonic tendencies of the current presidential administration. “Was there,” the Times columnist Jim Rutenberg asked the assembled experts, “anything that you scripted to be horrible for a character—like a huge, supposedly career-ending political bungle—that now wouldn’t be much of a problem?”
Sort of, Mandel replied. “Veep,” he said, “was based on five years of screw-ups that constantly, for lack of a better word, whacked her back down.” He was talking about the show’s protagonist, Selina Meyer, the fictional vice president, and then, briefly, the fictional president, of the United States. And the screw-ups in question were many, so many—failures of morality, often, and of professional competence of the most basic forms. Meyer’s problem wasn’t so much a single huge bungle as it was a series of them.
Mandel was being precise, though, when he said that she gets whacked back down: The ongoing joke of Veep, from its first season to its fifth, has been how thoroughly disentangled Meyer and those in her orbit have been from moral “consequences” as most people think of them. They have been whacked down, yes, but they have sprung up again. Meyer, too, has been coated in Teflon, making the experience of Veep, for the viewer, less akin to riding a roller coaster than to playing an ongoing game of Whac-a-Mole: Down-up, down-up, down-up, frenetically and ceaselessly. It’s a framing that has made Veep, despite its classification as a comedy, much more deeply cynical than Scandal or House of Cards or other tales of Washington evil ever could be: Veep’s schemers aren’t even any good at scheming—and, yet, they have ascended nonetheless, rising with blithe impunity, failing up all the way to the Oval Office. It’s a very particular kind of pessimism. Call it highilism.
However, in its most recent episodes, the show’s wacky, and whack-y, moral stance has notably shifted. The finale of Veep’s fifth season found President Meyer, temporarily installed after her predecessor’s resignation, losing her bid to be actually elected to the presidency. The loss, the show’s writers ensured, was an especially humiliating one: As Meyer left the White House in the ceremonial departure on January 20, an engine malfunction on Marine One forced her to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Washington Mall. There she was, in the freezing rain, forced to bear witness to the joyful celebrations of an inauguration that was not her own. And there she was, in her lowest of moments, suggesting the question that has always been the source of Veep’s narrative momentum: Could Selina Meyer, yet again, stage a comeback?
Season 6 premieres with a definitive answer: nope. Not for now, anyway. “Omaha” is set exactly one year after Selina’s presidential loss, and it finds President Meyer, who is now more specifically ex-President Meyer, dealing with the assorted vagaries of her ex-ness. Meyer has spent the intervening year, we soon learn, at “an institu”—nono, she repeatedly interrupts those who tell the truth, at “a spa.” She has a book deal, in the grand tradition of American ex-presidents, but is six months behind in delivering a draft to her editor. She has established the Meyer Fund, which is dedicated to adult literacy (and also, Meyer ad-libs during a live TV interview, to AIDS). The Meyer Fund is run by Marjorie, who was once on Selina’s Secret Service detail and is now her daughter’s girlfriend; the fund is housed in an office in the South Bronx that is gorgeous but, Meyer feels, decidedly beneath her. (“I mean, seriously, this is the worst place they’ve ever stuffed an ex-president—and I’m including JFK’s coffin.”)
It’s a situation that is not, by any objective standards, desperate: Meyer is still young, still healthy, still rich, still famous. “Omaha,” though, is an exploration of relativity, and Selina Meyer, being who and what she is, repeatedly reads her own situation as a broad insult composed of many minor ones: People are constantly forgetting that Meyer was the first woman president. The legacy she had worked for, as it became clear that her presidency might be concluding, was to “free Tibet”; that endeavor is now being spearheaded, it turns out, by her successor, Laura Montez—the woman most Americans seem to think of as the first to crack that ultimate glass ceiling. (Montez, the episode reveals, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.)
Meyer is also living off an allowance provided by Catherine, her daughter, who inherited the family fortune when Selina’s mother died and passed her over in the will. (This also explains why Marjorie, and not Selina herself, heads up the Meyer Fund.) Selina makes up the rest of the finances required to fund her exorbitant lifestyle, or tries to, with the speaking fees she charges for appearing at the gatherings of institutions like Mutual of, yes, Omaha. But those opportunities are rarer than she’d like them to be. She spends most of her evenings playing backgammon with Gary.
The post-presidency is a longstanding fascination of American pop culture, a dramatic situation—the highest heights, lowered by constitutional fiat—explored in comedies like My Fellow Americans, Dave, The West Wing, and many others. Veep takes a typically gimlet-eyed view: The former president isn’t merely trying to figure out what to do with her legacy. She is simply trying to figure out what to do with herself. She’s flailing, and failing, and restless, and indignant. How can you think about a legacy, after all, when your political career—as Meyer is convinced of her own—has only just begun? “You know what being an ex-president is like?” she asks Gary and Richard, who remained on her staff even after she left the White House. “It’s like being a man’s nipple”: ignored, useless, pointless.
Which is also to say that, comeuppance-wise, Selina Meyer has been throughly come-upped. And she’s not the only one. “Omaha” finds Amy managing the gubernatorial campaign of Nevada’s Buddy Calhoun—a bolo-tie wearing schlub who also happens to be Amy’s fiancé. Neither party seems especially excited about that arrangement. Dan is a guest co-host on CBS This Morning, and is about to be made, against his wishes, a regular. Ben is working at Uber, clashing with the Millennials as he assures them that he’s not racist, because, after all, his “wife is Oriental—all of them have been.” Mike is struggling with new fatherhood. Jonah is a congressman who is embarking on an extremely Jonah-esque campaign to fight the tyranny of … healthy school lunches. He is especially indignant about green beans.
No one, in other words, is happy or fulfilled, even by their own cynical interpretations of those conditions. Their incompetence has, finally and fully, come back to bite them. Their badness—as professionals, as people—has had, it turns out, consequences.
Which brings us back to David Mandel, and the interview he gave to the New York Times. After he acknowledged Selina Meyer’s many screw-ups, Mandel added:
She had ambition, obviously, to be president, ultimately got there in a very backward way, but was constantly striving, and then whether it was a leak or a bad tweet or a microphone left on, was sort of whacked down by these things. And now we have entered a world where these things happen and have no effect. And in some cases pushed him further along.
The “him” in question is the (actual) president of the United States. The world in question is one in which there seem to be no consequences for failures of morality or political performance. In this world, one that is very real but can seem so often surreal, and informed as much by reality television as by political tradition, the things that would have immediately felled other candidates—bragging about sexual assault, ranting on Twitter, insulting world leaders and institutions, etc.—appear to have no meaningful repercussions. The situation Mandel is alluding to is one in which the reliability of Newtonian physics has been destabilized; there are so many actions, right now, that seem to have no commensurate reactions.
What Veep is now providing, in contrast to its previous seasons, is a sense of moral stability: Here are a bunch of incompetent people who are living, finally, with the ramifications of their incompetence. Veep’s long-running game of Whac-a-Mole has, for the moment, been switched off: Its tenacious creatures have, at least temporarily, been frozen in their respective holes. Selina cheerfully contemplates another presidential run, and the few people whose opinions she values uniformly reject the idea. Dan is trying desperately to avoid getting hired as a chirpy TV correspondent. Amy’s main aspiration for her work in Nevada is “to drag this state into the 20th century—that’s right, I said 20th.”
Each of them has been brought low, and, unlike in previous episodes, each is having trouble imagining how to spring back up again. There’s a whole season ahead, of course, and one of Veep’s strong suits has always been thwarting its audiences’ (and characters’) expectations. For now, though, the show has given its viewers a taste of what you might call consequence porn. Here’s a group of people who are wrestling with one of the most wistful fantasies to have been brought about, against all odds, by the surreal world of 2017: that actions do, indeed, have repercussions.