On Election Day, as voters were taking to the polls to decide whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would become president, the cast and crew of HBO’s Veep were in Pasadena, filming scenes about an election ... in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. During the episode, which aired Sunday night, former president Selina Meyer was tasked with monitoring the integrity of an election the international community deemed as corrupt, all while being offered increasingly large sums of money for her nascent presidential library in return for using her influence to swing the election result.
Both the timing of the shoot and the episode’s unexpectedly prescient take on the influence of foreign money on presidential figures were unintentional—“a complete fluke,” as Veep’s executive producer, Frank Rich, puts it. But they speak to how Veep, a show that takes pains to exist at a remove from reality, has become in some ways the most accurate portrayal of American politics in culture. “Veep is our greatest political show,” declared Grantland in 2015, long before the idiosyncratic behavior of the Trump administration came to offer so many effortless mashups of the show and real life.
For Rich, the experience of working on Veep over the last few months has been a relief—an alternate reality to the one he analyzes as a writer-at-large for New York magazine. Previously the longtime theater critic and columnist for The New York Times, he is currently working on a new show for HBO titled Succession, about a New York media empire led by Logan Roy (Brian Cox), whose children are battling among each other to take over the family business. Rich talked to me by phone about Veep’s approach to satire, how it stays timely by not trying to be timely at all, and what it’s like to see politics become increasingly Veep-esque. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Sophie Gilbert: Can you talk a little bit about your immediate response to Trump’s win in November, and to how it might affect the show?
Frank Rich: Well, when I talk about the show, I also want to talk about the others connected with it, since we all went through this together. The reaction at Veep was fascinatingly also the reaction at New York, and I suspect at The Atlantic and throughout television—a feeling that no one saw it coming. It changes your view about a lot of things, and you look at the work ahead of you. But the reaction wasn’t, “Oh, we’re going to change the show” at all, because the particular nature of our show is that we never reference contemporary politicians, and we don’t assign political parties. We’ve never had a reference to Clinton, Obama, Trump, or anyone later than Reagan. But the feeling was, what does this mean? And what does our work mean in the context of this outrageous event? I think people’s first thoughts were about America, but as the shock wore off a lot of us felt a real sense of invigoration. To be able to make comedy in this time is a real luxury.
SG: And you were dealing with a story about the aftermath of an election.
FR: Long before we even knew who was running for president, Dave Mandel outlined, in broad terms, two seasons of Veep, the second of which was the one we were shooting this year. And the fundamentals of it never changed. In the last season we had an insane election story, and all of it had been shown on HBO before the 2016 election kicked off in earnest. So we didn’t have to suffer comparisons to the real campaign, the “grab ’em by the pussy” campaign, that we could never have possibly competed against. Dave’s plan was always that we would be dealing with the problems of a former president. The character isn’t Hillary Clinton, and any resemblance is only coincidence. Hillary Clinton, whatever one thinks of her, is a much more competent and admirable figure than Selina Meyer. In some ways, Selina may have more attributes in common with Trump. But we’re on a different track in an alternate reality, and we hope that’s an escape for the audience and somewhat cathartic, as it has been for us working on it in these times.
SG: You talked a little bit about thinking about your purpose—was there any sense that you wanted to reorient the show or do anything differently? Or was it very much to keep lampooning the things Veep lampoons, which are more relevant now than ever?
FR: People would constantly ask us—Dave, Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], and me—if we were going to do a Trump character now, and no, we’re not. We really believe in the integrity of this alternative-reality version of Washington that we’ve created. It has its own internal laws and its own original characters. Journalists—including me—have all had to update our premises and our assumptions as a result of Trump’s victory, but [at Veep] we have our own world that we’ve created, and it’s not a satire in that sense. Alec Baldwin doing Trump is terrific, but watching the current news being satirized eight months later—which is the kind of time lag we’d be talking about—would fall flat. As George Kaufman said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” So we hope that we’re creating something that is funny enough and real enough on its own terms that it will endure whatever’s happening in the actual Washington.
SG: Did you have any sense back in 2012 that American politics would come to look this much like the show?
FR: No. I certainly never anticipated anything as insane as a Donald J. Trump administration. That said, Julia and I both grew up in Washington, and we would talk with Armando [Iannucci, the show’s creator] about the fact that Veep really captures Washington better than anything else because it takes it to an absurd extreme—the banality, the incompetence, the narcissism, the complete disregard for voters, and the self interest and the furthering of one’s own career. That all felt very real to us, and we felt it had never really been captured in an entertainment vehicle before. We thought that Veep was ready for whatever Washington might do to compete against it. Did we think it would produce Donald Trump? I don’t think so. It would be ridiculous to say we were so prescient that we’d think this narcissistic five-year-old bully who was the host of The Celebrity Apprentice would become president of the United States.
SG: It’s funny seeing politics and entertainment fused to this extent.
FR: When we started shooting, we didn’t know that it would become such an industry—that there would be so many shows to do with Washington. In addition to House of Cards and Scandal and Madam Secretary, shows that have come and gone: 1600 Penn, Alpha House. Homeland to some extent, has become much more about Washington. There are so many presidents and vice presidents running around it’s become kind of hysterical. Sometimes even actors overlap. Kate Burton, who plays Senator Hallows in the pilot of Veep, has been in and out of Scandal. And Mimi Kennedy, who plays a powerful member of Congress in Veep, was also in Scandal. It’s pretty amusing.
As far as the election goes, it’s been a huge boost for SNL and late-night comedy. And maybe people want the relief of seeing an alternative reality or satire. Maybe they need it now more than ever.
SG: Is it intriguing to you at all that Veep came out of the Obama years, which—compared to the current moment—were relatively dull?
FR: I wouldn’t say there was a real cause and effect. I don’t remember that being at the top of Armando’s mind, or much of a factor in any discussion of the show. Really the heart of the show came out of Armando, who was Scottish and had satirized politics for many years in The Thick of It, and I think he hit on something timeless about people who want power and can’t get it. Armando is something of a Dickens fanatic, and there is something Dickensian to me about his view of how power is executed, and Dave has honored that while taking it in its own direction. Some things in human nature never change, at least in modern-ish history, the past couple of centuries.
SG: It’s interesting how you mention Homeland, because Homeland in my view really tried to tie itself to current events in its most recent season and suffered for it. In some ways, with Veep, you’re able to be more timely by not trying to be timely at all.
FR: I have to say, I didn’t see the last season of Homeland, but what I’ve seen, I’ve liked. But without making that comparison I do feel that there’s something liberating creatively about having a world that is an alternative world to reality, and having the boundaries of that, what you can and can’t do. It’s exciting to have that as a canvas and not be incumbent on real events, because it’s very hard to do. It’s less hard if you’re doing something live, like SNL or The Daily Show, but if you’re doing it in advance it’s very difficult. I’m thinking of something like The Newsroom, where, by the time it’d get to the Gabby Giffords shooting or the BP catastrophe in the Gulf, it’d be five or six or seven months late.
SG: But at the same time, you’ve created these characters who so easily translate to real people. Did you see the sketch of Sean Spicer’s Holocaust comments mashed up with Veep?
FR: With the credits? Are you kidding? Absolutely. We didn’t do it, but we loved it. The first one was the hilarious one about Trump failing to sign the executive orders, and it was so perfect because you saw his aide say, “I don’t think he signed them.” Then this one went further, because besides putting the credits on it they actually cut in little smidges of Julia and Matt [Walsh] from the show. The lesson I’d take from it is that there’s something so enduring about the horribleness of the characters in Veep that you can mix and match the connections. And we’ve continually found ourselves anticipating things by complete accident. Seasons ago we had Selina in a complete email meltdown, and last season she was blaming Chinese hackers for her embarrassment involving a tweet. It goes to show that even in the Trump era there’s a timelessness to the idiocy of Washington and people in power.
SG: I thought about that too watching the third episode of the new season, where Selina is overseeing the election in Georgia and people keep offering her huge amounts of dubious Russian money for her presidential library.
FR: Now, keep in mind, this was written long before the Russia-Trump connections were being talked about in the news. We were shooting this episode the week of the election, but it had been written and conceived long before it was shot. It was complete coincidence. We couldn’t get over it. Paul Manafort, none of that had happened.
I’ve often thought about it too in the early period of the Trump administration, where some fiasco or embarrassment happens and they try to change the subject by creating a different news event. I go back to the pilot of Veep, the very first episode, where Selina is speaking to the press and she tries to blame some mishap on her staff by saying, “I guess he was hoisted by his own retard.” And then she finds she’s in this public-relations calamity, so she and her staff exit the room and go into a closet to try to come up with a communications strategy. And Mike says, “Well, I’ve got an idea, what if Tom Hanks dies?” Here we are five, six years later, and that’s the Trump administration’s same strategy.
SG: I did want to ask quickly about Succession. Can you talk a little bit about that?
FR: Yes, and it’s interesting because there’s sort of a parallel thing going on. Keep in mind, it’s in very, very early stages—we shot the pilot at the end of the year, and now writers are starting to break story and work towards writing the episodes of the first season. Succession is about a wealthy international media tycoon played by Brian Cox, and his adult children and their various spouses who are vying to succeed him. He’s 80. It’s set in New York, and there are lots of people who could fit the description of this family, even though it’s fictional. You can see a little bit of the Redstones, a little bit of the Murdochs, a little bit of Robert Maxwell. But we had the table read, Trump was elected, and we were shooting it, and suddenly Adam McKay and Jesse Armstrong and myself said, now they seem like the Trumps! They’re not the Trumps of course, they’re not even in the same business, but it shows that when you’re dealing with the wielding of power—in this case financial and media power—there will be overlaps. I don’t want to put the burden on Succession because it’s so early, it’s just a baby, an embryo right now. But if you know what you’re doing, as Jesse does, you can often hit on something on the culture that’s potentially bigger than the story you’re telling.