TV’s most realistic show about Washington, D.C., is back. Yes, it can be fun and weirdly reassuring to watch House Of Cards and Scandal and imagine that our national leaders are always thinking ahead, even if their goals are malevolent. But politics is the art of reaction and improvisation, and Veep’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is, well… as good at politics as anyone else in the room.
Veep is can be seen as an argument for libertarianism, since it scrupulously avoids presenting any public official as being concerned with anything other than holding onto power. Last season, for example, the show gleefully revealed that one of Selina’s principal rivals, war hero Danny Chung, was just as petty—but even less disciplined—than the vice president. At the same time, the Mayberry Machiavellians of Veep (to steal a phrase from an appointee of George W. Bush disillusioned by the constant political strategizing in the White House) don’t seem to have much influence over how the country actually runs. Maybe the Leslie Knopes in local government actually help citizens, but Washington is just a sideshow.
In the third-season opener, Selina is at the top of her game. With just a couple of scraps of information, she masterfully ad-libs a eulogy for a congressman, even succeeding with a joke about how short the dead guy was. On Veep, it’s surprising that the details given to Selina are even accurate. For her to spin out a tribute based on his fishing abilities without causing offense is miraculous. Buoyed by success, she hauls out the same speech as a wedding toast with only one hiccup. The boost to Selina’s confidence in this episode will surely lead to trouble this season, but will the fishing metaphor come back to bite her?
“Some New Beginnings,” one of the smoothest if not funniest episodes of the series, is all about setting up the dynamics of the new season. The most important plot point is that the leaking of the president’s plan not to run for reelection, which forces Selina to ramp up her presidential campaign ahead of schedule. (“I’m staring down the barrel of 18 months of this shit,” she says of her travels among The People. “[It’s] an entire pregnancy with another entire pregnancy tacked on to the end of it.”) It also prompts her oily aide Dan (Reid Scott) to begin scheming to get the job of campaign director, but he may be underestimating his colleague Amy (Anna Chlumsky), whose less visible strategizing is symbolized by where she keeps her backup cellphone.
But the episode’s highlight is the dizzy delight of seeing the giantesque Jonah Ryan thrown out of the White House, taunted by staffers who bring to mind the villagers chasing Frankenstein’s monster. (Or is Jonah’s hunched posture reminiscent of disgraced president Richard Nixon?) Jonah has been writing an anonymous gossip blog called West Wing Man—HBO has not set up a fake website as of this writing—and he stupidly admits it to Dan, who immediately blows his cover. He’s not repentant: “I’m leaving here with my head held high and my nuts hanging low on your mother’s chin,” Jonah says to an extra presumably playing an only slightly less douchey White House aide. Thankfully, Timothy Simons is not leaving the show, and we can expect Jonah to cause even more trouble after he’s shed his sickening loyalty to the president.
The other big development is Selina enjoying the friendship of the president’s jaded chief of staff, Ben Cafferty, played by Kevin Dunn. (Dunn, who was added to the cast last season along with Gary Cole, rejoins HBO’s Sunday line-up two months after playing the exasperated commander of the two lead characters in True Detective.) Ben is the only regular on screen with Selina in “Some New Beginnings,” as her staff is all at the wedding of communications director Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) while she signs books in Iowa. The scene in which Selina and Ben marvel at the terribleness of the suggested names for the veep’s ghost-written book—including the one that was chosen, Some New Beginnings: Our Next American Journey—may be the sweetest moment yet on this very cynical show.
It makes sense that Selina would come around to seeing Ben as her confidant. Among her staff, Dan is untrustworthy, Mike is slow on the uptake, and Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) hasn’t got the patience for personal drama, plus Selina has worn down the nerve endings of Amy and Gary (Tony Hale) so much that they’re in constant fear she’ll task them with something unpleasant or impossible. Dan and Amy are also ambitious enough to betray Selina if it helps their careers. But Selina sees no threat in Ben; she probably thinks he just wants to stick around for a few more presidential campaigns until he fulfills his dream of dying quietly in his sleep. Whether she’s reading him correctly is one more of the many questions posed by “Some New Beginnings.”
- Another potential time bomb is Mike’s new wife, a reporter played by Kathy Najimy. He’s bound to tell her something he shouldn’t, and she may want to get revenge on the veep for cutting off her story about Mike and the cheese Danish. Najimy’s facial expressions during her cellphone conversation with Selina are perfect; you can see her trying to figure out what her relationship is going to be with what is essentially her new mother-in-law.
- And then there’s Defense Secretary George Maddox adding to the chaos by resigning and stoking speculation that he’s running for president. Maddox is seen only fleetingly on this episode, in TV news reports, but I’m salivating over this year’s first scene between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Isiah Whitlock Jr., playing characters who don’t bother to disguise how much they despise each other.
- “Some New Beginnings” opens with one of Veep’s most reliable sources of comedy, Selina trying to make small talk when she’d rather be somewhere else. “God bless you. Et cetera,” she says to a fan at the book-signing somewhere in Iowa. And: “This is an absolutely… stunning butter sculpture.”
- When Selina is on the phone in the bookstore, the cover of Faye Kellerman’s murder mystery The Beast lines up almost perfectly with her head. Other visible titles: Freakonomics, The Whole Enchilada, and Early Decision.
- Jonah doesn’t wash his hands in the men’s room because “My pheromones make bitches moan.” Fortunately, he does not take this reasoning to the extreme of Jim Norton in Lucky Louie.
- Mike’s ringtone is the guitar riff from Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” or maybe George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” Either one is pathetic. And though Gary is more relaxed at the wedding than he’s ever been with Selina (except when his cellphone rings), he still doesn’t want to hear about what you’re going to do on your honeymoon, Mike.
- Selina’s handler in Iowa (Sam Richardson), a less discreet version of Gary, tells her which of the people in line at the book-signing are potential caucus-goers in Iowa. This doesn’t seem like terribly useful information—she can’t be seen fawning over them while being rude to everyone else—but it’s apparently more important than, say, coming up with coherent policy positions before launching a campaign for president.