From the time it premiered 20 years ago on NBC, certain people have always wanted to believe Washington operated like “The West Wing.” They wanted to imagine slick, educated, smooth-talking technocrats briskly walking through corridors and “reaching across the aisle” to solve the problems the people of America. Civility and respect are the name of the game in this fiction. However, if the events of the 21st century haven’t already cracked this façade, the last few years most certainly have. It’s clear as day that our political reality resembles Armando Iannucci’s biting satire (more accurately, documentary), “Veep” — it’s made up of a bunch of narcissistic, power-hungry blowhards who couldn’t give two shits about you or me.
“Veep,” entering its final season, is Iannucci’s second crack at political comedy, after the British sitcom “The Thick of It.” “Veep” preserves the vulgarity and cynicism of its spiritual predecessor, but Iannucci’s great achievement is making it feel distinctly American. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Seinfeld”), the smoothed out yet in some ways more despicable version of “The Thick of It”’s Malcolm Tucker, is back with a vengeance, running for president after some soul searching.
The premiere is a reassuring reminder of how brilliant and awful these familiar characters are. The unmatched, hapless former liaison to Meyer’s office turned congressman Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons, “Ralph Breaks the Internet”) is now running for president himself. Blood-boilingly punchable as ever, he finds himself in somewhat of a scandal when the press finds out his wife is actually his step-sister, although he is adamant that it’s not that big of a deal in the first place.
Dreyfus’s performance as Meyer continues to be the biggest highlight in a show with many. She is still incapable of any self-reflection, remorse or emotion other than blatant selfishness. She struggles to answer the main question posed to her in the premiere: Why does she want to be president? As usual, she tries to come up with some of her signature faux-inspiration bullshit, but in reality, her only reason is because she is adamant that it is her damn turn. In one of the show’s more tragic character arcs, Selina’s daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland, “Chronic”) suffers from postpartum depression with little sympathy from her mother, who unsurprisingly refers to her baby as “it” and tries to use him as a prop as often as possible for her own gain. It’s hard to argue against the fact that at this point, she should probably just know better.
It’s pretty much settled that Selina’s never going to regain what semblance of humanity she once had, and it remains the same for most of the other surrounding characters. Amy (Anna Chlumsky, “Halt and Catch Fire”), Meyer’s chief of staff, is pregnant and Dan (Reid Scott, “Venom”) is revealed as the father. Dan, the epitome of smooth-talking, ruthlessly ambitious young Beltway careerist, is as callous as we expect, offering to “go Dutch on the abortion” even when Amy expresses a desire to keep the child.
“Veep”’s elite characters love calling the American people “disgusting” as often as they can, making it hilarious and sadly ironic when juxtaposed with their own rampant bigotry. It’s hard to not wonder where these people’s lives went wrong. Were they always mild (or severe) sociopaths, or did Washington suck out all remaining vestiges of their souls? Maybe it’s better if we know just how self-serving the people we represent us probably are. Maybe we can try to change things knowing this. Or maybe we can just follow the lead of Selina Meyer’s chief of staff Ben (Kevin Dunn, “True Detective”) and drink away from our nine-cup thermos filled with bourbon and Smartwater.