When Veep premiered in 2012, it was a show with great bones and all the potential in the world, but like a student who did all the homework and still bombed the final, it didn’t quite live up to its possibilities. Coming off the perfect Oscar-nominated screenplay for the underrated, horrifying classic In the Loop, Armando Iannucci, the British genius behind work including The Thick of It (English politics with arias of swearing from the current Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the terrifying Director of Communications) and Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan’s cult-classic TV presenter) had teamed up with HBO to take on American politics by following the hilariously useless life of the Vice President, Selina Meyer, played by American treasure (in England, she’d be a Dame by now) Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
But Veep didn’t quite find its footing in Season 1. Robbed of the magic of The Thick of It‘s operatic swearing (particularly its liberal use of a certain c-word), Veep just came off mean, with the characters spouting overly elaborate putdowns that never quire stung. Most episodes were about Selina trying to pass some legislation-y things while her incompetent but hyper-vigilant staff buzzed around her like bees trying to get some honey. There were funny lines, of course; Iannucci and his team can write like Oscar Wilde when they want, but there wasn’t much motion to the show, and every week was like a very good screwball stage play where nothing stuck, beyond the English team’s very accurate take on what it’s like in DC politics, i.e., a bunch of egomaniacs spewing sound and fury, signifying no change. It was, essentially, a show about nothing, with a magnificent performance of great vigor and physical hilarity from Louis-Dreyfus.
Veep was specific about DC politics, wheeling and dealing, and douchebag millennial types, like White House liaison Jonah (Timothy Simons), and it also made a point to be terrifically vague where it counted, to paint Selina as neither Democratic or Republican. The show leaned neither way, and that lack of choice blanded it out, but that was one of several things the show had in its pocket and ignored. In particular, early Veep episodes made a point to not acknowledge that Selina was a female Vice President, a woman that would (when she exists) be awfully alone in her field and her range of power.
It took until around the Season 2 episode “Helsinki” for the show to figure out that Selina wasn’t just a Vice President, but also an attractive woman who has to deal with a load of shit at her job; this episode concerned a case of sexual harassment from the creepy husband of the Finnish Head of State (played by Kids in the Hall alum Dave Foley), and it ended with Julia Louis-Dreyfus taking a drag off a cigarette and saying, “This is man’s world we live in. Because of the … Axis. Of. Dick,” while Tony Hale, as her officious body man Gary, fluttered and fanned his hands like she had just been shot. It was funny as hell, and it gave the characters more depth than mere quip machines.
The momentum that made Veep into an excellent show in Season 2 continues in Season 3, where it is finally hitting its stride. A slight serialization does it well; instead of being straight-up nihilistic satire about Selina’s political impotence, this season starts with a goal. She’s starting her presidential campaign 18 months out, in secret. This gives every interaction importance, since, of course, there’s a point to it, and it makes the utter futility of politics as seen on Veep even funnier in comparison.
“Some New Beginnings,” the Season 3 premiere, puts Selina in Iowa, pressing the flesh on a book tour for Some New Beginnings: Our Next American Journey, the exact sort of word-mush product issued by politicians who plan on running for office and ghostwritten by their underlings, in this case, her aide Dan (Reid Scott). Selina is bored to pieces making dopey small talk with the Midwest elite, and later, in her hotel room, her boredom consists of silly physical comedy where she’s rummaging around the books and pawing at things like a cat. Meanwhile, her staff is back in Washington, all attending the wedding of Press Secretary Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) to a very nice woman who demands that Selina’s staff give up their phones for one hour of their lives. It is done with much reluctance, of course. White House liaison/creep Jonah has taken up political blogging, because of course he’s going down some Ezra Klein path, and the results are way too close to reality.
The characters are all united, to a degree, towards various goals centering around Selina’s hunt for the presidency. As the season continues, hot-button topics are actually taken up and talked about: abortion, universal childcare, a great parody of a Google-esque Silicon Valley company, fishing, and so on. Selina’s staff parries for power, not knowing where they really stand. Jonah is out in the wilderness and it’s quite the parody of what journalism stands for today. The show remains very, very funny at its core, since, underneath all the jokes and all the verbiage, there’s a point. Politics is made up of people talking and talking, using so many words to connect with people, but the words themselves are devoid of meaning — nonsense jumbles of vocabulary fitted together to sound correct.
They’ve continued to mine the comic possibilities coming from Selina’s status as a woman in politics. In a later episode, one plot has her saying, in response to a response she has to issue, “I can’t identify myself as a woman, people can’t know that!” It’s funny, it’s absurd, and it’s a phrase that can you can easily imagine falling from any American female politician’s lips.
Before Veep started to click as an ensemble and as a show committed to the nonsense of American politics, it was hard to figure out where the real-life analogues are, and what sort of research the mostly British team did to write the show. In Season 3, on the other hand, there are shades of Hillary, Obama, and other politicians everywhere you look. Iannucci and his team have figured out the key to Veep: they’re not afraid, anymore, to engage with the real absurdities of life in American politics, and by engaging with Selina’s world (and the American tradition of, oh, serialization and continued storytelling that keeps you coming back), Veep is all the stronger for it, and this season it is a reliably hilarious show.