Armando Iannucci’s Veep, which returns for its third season Sunday night on HBO, has always been a tough watch for political reporters, or TV critics, or anyone who strings words together for a living. It’s a smartly written comedy about the meaninglessness of words and rhetoric—a sharp take on the no content of content.
Veep’s third season begins in Iowa, where Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), preparing to give a eulogy for a man she did not know, is signing copies of a book she did not write. (In a nice touch, HBO has sent copies of the book to reviewers. All the pages are empty.) Later, when Selina’s sprinting in a pre-dawn race to come up with a new abortion stance, an aide races to find a copy of the book—“I have a bunch of unsold ones in my car!”—and finds a passage on abortion that Selina’s overly competent aide Amy (Anna Chlumsky) reads aloud.
“Freedom is what this nation is built on, blah blah blah,” reads Amy, “and freedom means the freedom to choose how to use that freedom to protect the freedom of others.”
“That’s just pastel color shit,” sighs Selina, slumping into a chair. She struggles to come up with something better, something she actually believes, and gets fed up with herself—“Maybe I should just say, get the government out of my fuckin’ snatch.” But that can’t possibly work. Dan (Reid Scott), the affably soulless flack who actually wrote the book, draws up her options on a chart with lots of numbers and positions ranked according to poll data. It’s the only way out.
It’s a familiar Veep joke, but the context is new to this season. Veep’s never-seen president, who placed Selina on his ticket and trapped her in the Naval Observatory, is retiring after one disastrous term. Selina is running to replace him. Before now we’d only gotten quick glimpses of how she campaigns, in a quick stump speech montage and in the few seconds of headlines that run in the opening credits. This is what she’s supposed to be good at, liberated by.
But she’s still trapped. There are icons of failure all around her, starting with the departing president’s exiled chief of staff, Ben (Kevin Dunn) and his pollster, Kent (Gary Cole). Selina had called Ben a “burned-out loser.” She wasn’t wrong. Yet she ends up keeping him around, conferencing into calls to blacken the mood, warning the rest of her staff of the failure and weight gain that they’re in for this campaign. He owns every scene he’s in—an Obi Wan Kenobi of quiet despair.
And he’s a perfect contrast with Jonah (Timothy Simons), the White House liaison who [spoiler ahead] is fired in the first episode of the season. Veep is the most relatable of the current crop of Washington shows, and Jonah was, regrettably, the character with the most analogues in the real city. The joke could go no further, so Iannucci came up with a better one. The defenestrated Jonah immediately becomes a highly touted blogger, landing on MSNBC after he cuts a viral video.
I didn’t think Veep needed even more jokes about the media, but this one works. Jonah is more powerful as an “observer” than he ever was in the White House. He knows where to be when Selina’s team is humiliating itself. He knows whether to record it himself or peddle it to a reporter. “We put it out there and something will arrive that backs it up,” he explains to a co-blogger. “That’s journalism 101.”
Jonah is awful, obviously. His success says little about his talent and everything about his material. The pre-primary stage of a presidential race, which (lucky for HBO) can last more than a year, is a cavalcade of suck-ups and meaningless events and news cycles that can be thrown by a gaffe or a small change to a speech. The best of the Veep episodes screened for critics takes place on the day Selina announces her candidacy, much of it spent trapped in a room with yet another chart. This one has the faces of the average Americans Selina plans to single out, as they stand behind her in a rainbow of poll-tested diversity.
“Thanks to Saturday Night Live, we need to take Disabled Farmer off the steps,” says Kent.
“We can’t lose the farmer, because then we’d need to get rid of the New York fitness guy,” says Dan.
The press is in a holding room, waiting for scraps from the speech. So is one of the average Americans, who might be taken off the white board if one senator decides that particular issue is too costly. “I’m supposed to let a bunch of dead-eyed white guys shit all over everything I stand for?” asks Selina. The day drags on. The senator keeps balking. With even greater passion than before, Selina convinces herself to cave.
“I’ve decided that I’m going to let them dictate to me,” she says, in a mode somewhere between a nervous breakdown and the St. Crispin’s Day speech. “That is my decision. I am letting them do that. But they do not own me!”
The scene is simultaneously funny and soul crushing, like the best of Veep or of Iannucci’s other shows. By the end of the episode, Selina has worked a kind of miracle that lets her disappoint the senator and the citizen equally. She does so in a way that the media can’t cover. In another episode, she takes a stand and keeps Dan on her staff instead of hiring an operative described as “Dan without the 5 percent that needs to be loved.” Nobody points out that the 95 percent that remains, as Selina herself once called it, is “shit.” If words don’t matter, why should numbers?