Face It, Veep Is Past Its Prime

TV Features Veep
Face It, Veep Is Past Its Prime

In the circles I run in, it’s known simply as “Amy’s meltdown”: the moment in “Convention,” from the middle of Veep’s fourth season, at which campaign manager Amy Brookheimer (the uproarious Anna Chlumsky) departs President Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) staff by torching every bridge in the room. I’ve seen the clip on YouTube more times than I can count, can quote the tirade near-verbatim (“I wouldn’t let you run a bath without having the Coast Guard and the fire department standing by”), but watching it again now, after a season in which Veep seemed to slip, or at least plateau, in comparison to its comic brethren, I’m struck by how flawlessly “Convention” tees up its climax.

Though Amy’s meltdown is largely directed at Selina, its inciting incident is a series of frustrations involving Selina’s friend, Karen Collins (Lennon Parham), a woman for whom no idea is too small to parrot, no opinion too important to punt — “It’s been weeks, and she has yet to speak a declarative sentence,” Amy growls in the episode’s opening minutes, setting the line from the start. As “Convention” proceeds, Meyer’s selection of a new running mate becomes fodder for Amy’s exasperation, each insult and eye roll pushing her, and us, toward the ultimate outburst. Chlumsky’s delivery of “Have you been sent from the future to destroy me?!”—she bends at the midsection and raises her clenched fists, as if appealing not to Karen but to God—still makes me laugh more than two years later, but even after she storms out of the room, Veep isn’t quite finished with the gag. In the scene’s closing moments, Selina’s eyes dart back and forth between Karen and the door, and with her perfect, tacit punch line, she comes to see that Amy was right: “I’m going to want to talk to Tom James.”

Now, compare Amy’s meltdown to analogous interludes in the series’ ongoing sixth season: Congressman Jonah Ryan’s (Timothy Simons) sudden eruption on CBS This Morning; ex-president Selina Meyer and spokesman Mike McClintock’s (Matt Walsh) destruction of her late father’s study; “bag man” Gary Walsh’s (Tony Hale) crack-up at his 40th birthday party. The latter surf on the same wave of rage, certainly, and there are grace notes—Jonah ensnared by his microphone, for instance—reminiscent of the earlier episode’s precise construction, but each appears more indiscriminate, in the thrall of theatrics for their own sake. Season Six, on the down slope of Veep’s reign as TV’s most merciless comedy, in fact reminds me of Season One, as the series found its footing: The satire is wicked, and yet it appears almost aimless, a form of shooting blanks.

It’s tempting to chalk this up to the shifting sands of American politics, our parodic president and his frightening policies cutting both comedians and dramatists off at the pass, but the self-pitying streak that distinguishes Veep’s more recent meltdowns is, or should be, an effective lance on the boil of the White House’s cries of “witch hunt!” Indeed, at its Season Four height—the six-episode arc from “Convention” to “Election Night”—the series confronted the emptiness of a system that rewards the inept, the venal, the vulgar and the mean with power, the maintenance of which becomes the sole “principle” on offer. Veep, in its middle seasons, was pure politics, unmoored from ideological conviction and partisan affiliation, then strung together by the characters’ penchant for failing upward: the ideal indictment of life “inside the Beltway,” self-perpetuating as it sinks further and further in the public’s esteem.

In Season Six, set one year after Selina’s hopes for a full term are dashed by an Electoral College tie and ensuing vote in the House of Representatives, Veep remains reliable—in addition to the occasional set piece that highlights Selina’s utter shamelessness, such as the National Volunteer Week sequence that opens “Chicklet,” its tongue-lashing humor is for the most part intact. (My favorite line of the season so far comes as Hugh Laurie’s Tom James, Selina’s backstabbing former running mate and longtime crush, introduces his much younger wife: “Ali-th-ia?” Selina says, mimicking his pronunciation. “Is that her name, or is that the pill you take to fuck her?”) But fatigue, I’d suggest, has begun to creep in, at least at the margins; Jonah’s ignorance of “Daylight Savings Time,” and Kent’s (Gary Cole) repeated corrections (“Saving”), are rather low-hanging fruit for a writers’ room this sharp, and the rococo self-owns that Congressman Roger Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) forces on his aide, Will (Nelson Franklin), are staler than week-old bread.

The problem, perhaps, is that Veep has ceased to evolve: If Selina’s path to power once paralleled the series’ own rising confidence, each honing their respective knives as the action shifted from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the West Wing, the current season seems stuck in the past. The referents—Kennedy’s coffin, apartheid, AIDS, Nancy Reagan’s cock-sucking manual, “going down like Eleanor Roosevelt at Dinah Shore weekend”—are strangely old-fashioned for a series that’s so long managed to capture the zeitgeist without exactly aping it, and while this may mirror Selina’s plight—nostalgia for power, and the search for new purpose—it underscores the season’s relatively slack structure, an uneasy fit for the dialogue’s omnipresent rat-a-tat.

Casting about for a post-White House role (election observer, Supreme Court justice, memoirist, grandmother), Selina’s struggle contains the promise of a fresh direction for Veep—and yet the season replays the series’ glory days again and again, rather than moving forward. It’s not merely the meltdowns, after all: It’s the return, in “Blurb,” to Selina and Tom’s sexual tension, or the relationship between Selina and Gary, tested and repaired in “Judge” much as it was in Season Four’s extraordinary “East Wing.” To say that Veep is past its prime is not to suggest that it’s now a failure, nor to imply that it can’t, in the remaining episodes of its sixth season and its forthcoming seventh, reinvent itself once more. It’s simply to acknowledge the series’ main issue, at the moment, is not so dissimilar from its central narrative: Like Selina herself, once Veep went presidential, it turns out it couldn’t go back.

Traditional sitcoms thrive, of course, on the familiar, even the static, but Veep at its best was no traditional sitcom. It was, rather, a poison-tipped shiv aimed at the heart of a broken system, always changing its tune without losing its voice. At a moment in which the series’ trademark closing credits can be added, in toto, to one or another flailing administration official’s on-camera appearances, it’s not politics Veep can no longer keep pace with, it’s the high bar it set for itself. In fact, it’s in one of those sequences, replete with patriotic music and the usual black bumper, that the sixth season, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledges the danger of allowing the consistent to become the complacent. Selina’s daughter, Catherine (the underappreciated Sarah Sutherland), is describing a frustration not far from Amy’s, that of being unseen and unheard, when her therapist interrupts her: “Do you realize these are the same complaints you’ve had for 15 years?” Her response is no outburst, no meltdown, but she nonetheless sounds a note of self-defense with which Veep has to grapple in future: “Yeah, but they’re not exactly the same,” she admits, uncertainly. “I think that things have changed.”

Fingers crossed.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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