Note: This piece contains some spoilers for the upcoming season.
There’s somehow another six months left in the 2016 election cycle, a mind-numbing, despair-inducing iteration that feels increasingly like a primordial hex on humanity coming to fruition. Trump and Clinton’s saturation on TV has been boosted by the proliferation of comedy news and semi-topical, D.C.-based dramas like Scandal and House of Cards.
Bless Veep, then, for offering an escapist respite from the daily skirmishes of the campaign, while heaping pitiless, justified scorn on the people who are content to let our broken system stay broken. Premiering on Sunday night, Season 5 of HBO’s Oval Office comedy is an indispensable balm for election fatigue. The show’s staunch non-partisanship, which has often seemed like a convenient dodge, now feels like a gift. At this point in the presidential race, I’m just happy to watch fictional politicos say the most hilariously vile and vulgar things they can think of to one another, much of which overlaps with what we’d like to say to them too.
The premiere opens the day after Veep’s fictional election, which garners Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer the popular vote but results in a tie in the electoral-college tally. Promoted to the West Wing after the rarely seen POTUS resigned at the end of Season 3, bratty Selina and her inept, failing-upward sycophants face a recount in Nevada, where she might edge out her opponent, Bill O’Brien (Brad Leland). Aides Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott), both back by Selina’s side after defecting in a snit last season, head to Carson City to argue to voting officials that a ballot marked “FUCK SELINA MEYER” should be counted in favor of the sitting president. Because this is the warped-but-still-uncomfortably-close-to-real world of Veep, Amy and Dan win their case.
Apart from a brief allusion to a “racist billionaire,” the first four episodes of the current season thankfully resonate more with elections past, like Bush v. Gore and that time Minnesota bureaucrats had to decide whether a vote for “Lizard People” should be weighed against Senator Al Franken. (Democracy at work!) Creator Armando Iannucci exited the series at the conclusion of Season 4, but Veep’s house style -- particularly its abrasive, testicular wit and its cynical depiction of all politics as hollow performance -- remains very much intact. “You’re as toxic as a urinal cake in Chernobyl,” Amy tells Dan, just before hiring him again.
While Veep is the same rude treat it’s always been, new showrunner David Mandel, a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm alum, might be erring on the side of making Selina too grotesque a monster. In the fourth episode, Meyer’s team takes a break from their avalanching series of mistakes when Selina’s mother suffers a stroke. (“Again?!” the POTUS moans.)
What follows is a hysterical portrait of grief, Washington-style, populated by people who are ordinarily too busy to feel feelings. But Selina’s narcissism crosses over from recognizably sociopathic to crudely cartoonish, even for this show, as the flailing politician contemplates the “death bump” her popularity might enjoy as a result of her mother’s passing. She also carelessly sets ablaze the one relationship that has historically humanized her most, that with her long-suffering daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland). Selina has a lot of fires to put out, but this is the one that matters most.
If there’s any excitement to be had about the possibility of Selina being elected America’s first female president, Veep is defiantly not having it. Back in Season 3, the show seemed more willing to engage in social commentary, as when Selina refused to speak about abortion from a woman’s POV because of the dicey reality of female likability: “I can’t identify myself as a woman … Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that -- which, I believe, is most women.” Selina’s cavalier affair with a wealthy banker (John Slattery) this season might serve as a model for lean-in women whose schedules can only accommodate a booty call. But Selina’s also the type of person who screams at her staff to cancel an event “like Anne Frank’s bat mitzvah.” If you view this stateswoman as remotely inspirational, Veep warns, you do so at your own peril.