“The Choice,” otherwise known as “the abortion episode” of Veep, makes a calculated decision of its own. Abortion is probably the most polarizing issue in American politics, and there’s little doubt about the conviction of people on both sides. “The Choice” could have satirized the ferocity and self-righteousness of both pro-choice and pro-life activists, in the manner of the film Citizen Ruth, but it provides only glimpses of such people. Instead, Veep stays on its course (or “steers into the skid,” as my colleague Brandon Nowalk writes in his review of the season’s first five episodes) of depicting everyone in Washington as soulless and superficial.
Last season, Vice President Selina Meyer briefly questioned her role in encouraging a military action that cost a soldier his leg, but her narcissism returned before she got too introspective to do her job. In “The Choice,” she’s untroubled by any implications of abortion policy, merely trying to find her sweet spot on the ideological spectrum. Specifically, she tries to find some space between her two main rivals for her party’s presidential nomination—relatively liberal Danny Chung and relatively conservative George Maddox—after the lame-duck president “goes rogue” and suddenly decides that he’s against abortion. Selina’s immediate reaction to the president’s about-face: “I do not mean to sound paranoid, but he is trying to kill me.”
Your enjoyment of “The Choice” may depend on whether you like specific political satire or Veep’s more generalized indictment of everyone in the public sector. Selina and her staff behave just as you expect here, and just as you’d expect if they suddenly had to iron out a position on the death penalty, or the use of drones against civilians, or cockfighting. It’s an enjoyable piece of nasty comedy, but “The Choice” demonstrates why Veep is not a show that could last for 100 or more episodes, like a South Park or even a Parks And Recreation. It can go to this comedy well only a few more times before there’s nothing left for the pail.
“We’re trying to figure out how I think about this issue,” Selina tells her staff in a middle-of-the-night meeting. Gary remembers her book that she didn’t write (from “Some New Beginnings”), but the only relevant passage is: “Freedom means the freedom to choose how to use that freedom to protect the freedom of others.” (This may be the farthest Veep has ever gone into an alternative universe, as no one would get a vice-presidential nomination in real life without being grilled on this issue several thousand times.)
Dan blows up at Selina over her indecision (a nice uncorking of pressure by actor Reid Scott), and after adopting a prayer gesture to beg for her forgiveness, spells things out for her and us: “I love abortion. I am an abortion-ado. But I would go pro-life in a fucking fetal heartbeat if it meant winning!”
Besides such on-the-nose dialogue, “The Choice” features the sight gag of a Catholic bishop impulsively eating a grape (or nut?) in Selina’s office, not realizing that it’s part of Gary’s display indicating fetus sizes at different points in a pregnancy. There’s also a freedom-of-choice subplot about Gary chafing at his role as Selina’s personal assistant, which includes such maternal tasks as handing her disinfectant baby wipes. He wants to abandon the carryall that’s always slung over his shoulder, complaining to Mike, “I don’t want to be a guy in his 40s carrying a bag.” When Amy gives him a task of more substance, he practically skips out of the office exclaiming, “I don’t need my bag! I don’t need my bag!” (Another fun moment of physicality, this time from Tony Hale.)
Maybe the best thing about “The Choice” is how Veep’s cast is working better than ever as an ensemble in their 20th episode, which is right on schedule a sitcom that has a very good idea of what it wants to say. From Anna Chlumsky’s tightly wound Amy to Kevin Dunn’s ready-to-check-out Ben (“I’m going home, and if anybody needs me, I don’t care”), this is a show that’s found its own sweet spot.
- The other big story of the episode is Jonah (Timothy Simons, fearlessly amping up his character’s douchiness) going freelance with a political gossip site after being fired from the White House. The “Ryantology” site is cringeworthy, with Ryan starring in poorly lit videos (he admits that they share the aesthetics of Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project) and shouting things like, “Old media, like the Washington Toast, better run and hide in the bathroom, and join the Poo New York Times!” He somehow gets two tech nerds to work for him, and Veep slanders MSNBC by portraying the network as insane enough to put Jonah on the air, where his bravado immediately vanishes. I assume he’ll be relevant in future episodes only because valuable pieces of information just fall in his lap — some of them dropped by Mike.
- Speaking of Mike, it’s nice to see Matt Walsh get to play him as competent and self-assured in his new roles of husband and father. Too bad his honeymoon can’t last forever.
- Selina’s ride-along with the Coast Guard is mostly labored comedy (sorry), with Dan getting seasick and Gary getting annoyed that everyone refers to “downstairs” instead of “below deck.” The veep must really trust the crew: She makes them turn around before they get a chance to apprehend an apparent smuggler, and she doesn’t seem concerned that anyone will leak the story to Fox News.
- Selina, in a moment of forgetfulness: “Oh, my god, what’s your name? I’m so sorry.” What’s-her-name: “It starts with a K.” Selina: “No, can you just tell me?” Sometimes Selina really does speak for all of us.
- “Let’s go. The coasts don’t guard themselves.”
- Guy in boat full of weapons: “Hey, I voted for you!” Selina: “Thank you very much, sir! But I’m afraid you have to go to prison!” Nice way to poison a jury pool, veep!
- The topic of abortion raises the question of whether any of the characters on Veep are religious. It staggers belief that Selina or Dan would subscribe to a code of morality. Sue, who is most successful at keeping a wall between her personal and professional lives, is the wild card here.
- Selina’s high point of profanity this episode is silent. “Who the fuck is this?” she mouths to Mike, not knowing whether the woman on the other end of the cellphone is pro-choice or pro-life.
- Second place is when Selina has a brief moment of clarity: “Maybe I should just say, ‘Get the government out of my fucking snatch.’” Is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus peeking through her character? Or Elaine Benes?
- If you think that the characters on Veep are unrealistically tone-deaf when discussing abortion, remember that last week a legislator in Missouri, advocating a state-mandated waiting period, compared the decision to terminate a pregnancy to the process of carpeting one’s house. (“You know, I was just considering getting carpeting in my house. That process probably took a month. … I wanted to be as informed as possible, and that’s what this bill is, having [pregnant women] get as much information as possible.”)