Veep Review: Selina Meyer and the Political Machine

veep hboWhen Selina Meyer became the Vice President of the United States, she thought that the hard work was over. She had kissed enough babies and shook enough hands to have the chance to make real change in Washington, something very few people could even dream of accomplishing. Even with Capitol Hill seemingly permanently in gridlock, she was given the second highest office in the land, one heartbeat from the presidency without facing the scrutiny. It seemed like a fairly hopeful situation for the Veep, but it didn’t take very long for things to turn sour.

Almost as soon as she took office, Selina felt her goal of policy reform, as well as POTUS, slipping away from her. She went from dreaming of passing legislation and controlling Congress to dealing with ice cream shop openings and having to ward off the bad publicity that came with several moves she made last season, all of which further alienated POTUS and disintegrated whatever political capital she entered the White House with. It seemed like she would be forced to the sidelines for the entirety of the first term, at least until the President needed her services for campaigning and/or damage control, and she would feel her time as VPOTUS dwindling away with each passing day, unable to do anything to alter the course of her career.

However, the second season of HBO’s Emmy-nominated comedy Veep tells a different story. On the strength of a 0.9% polling bump during the midterm elections, which saw her be able to flex her campaigning skills during a cross-country trek, VP Selina Meyer has earned a chance to show POTUS what she can do. It may not be much to go on, but given the choice between where she was last season and where she could go if things pan out right, she’ll gladly take the chance. Selina’s put on a team tasked with bringing home American hostages held in Uzbekistan, so while foreign policy isn’t necessarily her strength, it’s what she’s been dealt and what she’ll have to use as a stepping stone to a better relationship with POTUS and more responsibility around the White House.

Having seen the first four episodes of the 10-episode season, the first thing I noticed was the show’s newfound narrative momentum. Season one was mostly spent languishing with Selina in a series of PR gaffes and humiliating situations and while everything was funny, well-written, and strongly executed, there wasn’t anywhere Veep could go. They could only take Selina down so far before her misfortunes turned from inept and satirical to pathetic and cringeworthy, but they couldn’t immediately have her go from Washington pariah to superstar political assert overnight, so instead, the show decided to compromise and follow her journey back to political respectability. Selina had fallen so far during the first season that there’s a lot of mountain left to climb before she could expect a direct call from POTUS, giving the character a sense of direction that had been lacking while keeping her grounded in what makes the show what it is.

Selina still stumbles mightily during the first four episodes, but she actually has moments that confirm that, yes, she is/was a savvy enough politician that earned her spot on the ticket. Veep is in an interesting position, in that a lot of its comedy comes from watching things blow up in Selina’s face and yet they can’t go to that well too frequently without turning her into a walking punchline. It’s one thing for Selina to be hardened by the rigors of Washington and unable to handle the spotlight that comes with being the Vice President, especially since she was given peanuts to do, but it’s another for her to be an inept politician who is more believable in falling down than she is in doing her job. Don’t get me wrong, the show (and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, coming off a richly deserved Emmy) absolutely sells every demeaning thing that Selina has to deal with in her new role and you’re torn between laughing with and at her, thanks to Dreyfus’ versatile performance and innate likability shining through.

It would just damage the show if they had pushed her down and held her down much longer. However, the second season of Veep has began the redemption of Selina Meyer arc (more or less) and it’s nice for her to be given things to do, the stronger connective tissue between the episodes and still impressive supporting cast (Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale, in particular, playing Gary as devoted, as OCD, as entertainingly on-the-edge-of-a-breakdown as ever) making the journey that much more engrossing. Not only do we get a deeper look into the supporting cast, including family emergencies, job offers, and new love, there are two new characters for Selina to play off of and play she does; while POTUS’ nervous chief of staff Ben (Kevin Dunn) clings to his comically oversized coffee cup and takes his place as Selina’s ally, Senior Strategist Kent (Gary Cole) is the one person standing in between Selina and time with POTUS, so he must be taken down (and quickly) should the Veep have a chance at securing her position with the President.

Both Dunn and Cole take to the material well, falling in line with its punchy, venomous rhythms from their first appearances, and Cole’s character gives Selina someone to work against, to great results. Season one had Selina working against the entire Washington system rather than one individual/group of individuals, so seeing her butt heads with men like Kent and, later, Secretary of Defense Maddox gives the season a more personal appeal. There’s something real and tangible for her to be fighting against and it’s helpful to the long-term prospects of the series to have her not fighting some unwinnable war for X number of seasons. Of course, that could be a subtle commentary on the state of American politics, but as a television show, it would eventually grow tiring. By bringing Selina into the inner circle to which she was denied access to last season, Veep is sharpening its satire while doing right by its leading lady and providing a wider range of backdrops for the show to use, particularly if the Veep actually puts up a couple of wins in a row.

But for all the changes mentioned, Veep is very much still Veep. It’s still a show that you don’t even have to physically watch to get enjoyment out of, with its awesomely constructed, incredibly creative vulgarity and palpable energy; it’s still anchored by one of my favorite performances on television in Dreyfus, whose masterful control and understanding of her character’s ego and ambition is always a fun watch; it’s still decidedly cynical with a mean streak that you either get or you don’t.

The second season premiere of Veep airs tonight at 10:00 on HBO. You can check out a sneak peek from the episode here.

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