The lowest point for Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in the first season of HBO’s Veep was soiling herself, in a little black dress, as she fled a yogurt shop in gastric distress and didn’t quite make it to her limo. The most memorable image of “Midterms,” the season-two premiere is, thankfully, not as scatological: Wearing high heels, Selena unwittingly grinds lipstick into the rug bearing the presidential seal in the Oval Office. Moments like this make me hope, for the sake of all 8-year-old American girls, that in the fictional universe of Veep Selina is not the first woman elected to national office.
The return of Veep — created by Simon Blackwell and The Thick Of It’s Armando Ianucci — takes place on the night of midterm congressional elections, when Selina’s party is trounced from coast to coast, two years after winning the White House (echoing the experience of Barack Obama in 2010). Polling data suggests that Selina is a tad less unpopular than President Whatshisname, so she tries to spin the defeat into a bigger role in the administration. As viewers of the first season will expect, she overplays her hand, and her late-night invasion of the Oval Office ends with her creepily faithful aide Gary (Tony Hale) furiously erasing the lipstick traces of her presence. The result is another humiliation for the vice-president who can make Joe Biden seem stuffy and circumspect. Selina, who starts the episode throwing out banalities at campaign stops, ends it by sleepily giving vacuous interviews to the morning shows, trying to explain away her party’s electoral debacle.
Veep, a busy comedy mostly filled with awful people, can’t be called an attempt to do anything new on TV, at least not on the network that recently gave us Girls, Enlightened, In Treatment, etc. But it does have a sense of purpose: convincingly depicting the pettiness and locker-room juvenility of American politics at the highest level and, in doing so, flattering jaded viewers who think all elected officials are phonies. (After calling a gubernatorial candidate to the stage at a campaign rally, Selina contemptuously whispers in his ear, “I fluffed them, now go fuck them.”)
Last year, it got off to a more sure-footed start than that other TV comedy about an ambitious woman in government, partly because of the difference in lead actresses. Coming from improvisation and sketch comedy, Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler seemed to lean into her character’s more ridiculous aspects; it was only after a wobbly first season that she and the writers figured out how to make Leslie Knope manic but worthy of respect. By contrast, Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus had lots of experience, on Seinfeld and then The New Adventures Of Old Christine, in playing a character who does lots of stupid things in such a way that we would not get tired of watching over the long haul. Since Veep has no good guys to root for and no realistic goals to be attained other than the preservation of power, the biggest dramatic tension in the first season was watching Louis-Dreyfus strive to preserve some dignity for her character. (The running gag of her asking, “Did the president call?” every time she entered her office is a good example. It’s difficult to imagine the effusive Poehler getting a negative answer without looking crushed; Louis-Dreyfus always added a facial expression to the effect of “Yes, of course, he didn’t call. I had to ask, but I’m not completely delusional.”)
Similar to The Comeback, another HBO series with a smart actress playing an often-clueless character, there are a lot of obstacles to seeing Selina as a hero, but we do want her to achieve a victory once in a while. That’s why I was so pleased by a moment in this episode, in which Selina is being prepped for video interviews from her office and she notices that a ceramic horse in the background appears to be jutting out from her head. She’s on the ball! Unfortunately, her competence comes through in part because she likes to surround herself with dimwits like communications director Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) and abrasive schemers like Dan Egan (Reid Scott). “I don’t know why I’m catching these things,” Selina says in a mix of exasperation and pleasure at lording something over her staff.
The biggest change in the season premiere is the introduction of Gary Cole as Kent Davidson, nicely underplaying his role as the president’s “senior strategist.” He’s almost like The Simpsons’ Frank Grimes in that he can scarcely believe the idiocy he encounters among the president and vice president’s staffs. (He’s also similar to Cole’s recurring character on The Good Wife, a no-nonsense ballistics expert unimpressed by power plays and courtroom theatrics.) During their confrontation in the Oval Office, Selina accidentally swats a tube of lipstick into his eye — is it a foreshadow of Selina one day causing his death in a freak accident?
It’s a measure of Veep’s cynicism that the sanest character on the show has the most nakedly political job; in contrast to the vice president and her entourage, he doesn’t even have to maintain a pretense of working for the public good. Cole is an effective foil for the hyperactive Louis-Dreyfus, disarming Selina by merely cocking an eyebrow as she complains about her skills not being “adequately tapped.” The episode introduces another good contrast in Kevin Dunn as Ben Caffrey, the president’s weary chief of staff. When Selina finds him in a supply closet brooding over the election results and asks him, “Are you drunk?” he wisely resists the temptation to reply, “No, Ms. Vice President, are you?”
“Midterms” nears its conclusion on an ironic note, as Caffrey dumps some binders on Selina’s desk and tells her that she’s being given more responsibility for foreign policy — a no-win portfolio of sticky diplomatic situations that usually comes at the end of political careers. It’s a setback for Selina, but the smart new characters may be reviving whatever political acumen got her to within a heartbeat of the presidency. In next week’s installment, she may be the sharpest she’s ever been on Veep, and it makes for a funnier episode. Time to let Selina be Selina!
- Funniest campaign-stop moment: Selina telling an anecdote that ends with someone telling her, “You don’t remember me, but I am your grandpa!” I don’t know whether she’s talking about her actual grandfather, a World War II vet who was using the title metaphorically, or an old man being used to illustrate the need for Alzheimer’s disease research. Given Selina’s who-cares delivery, he could be anybody.
- This episode’s most insensitive Selina moment comes after Mike the inarticulate communications director, says, “You can’t reason with him. It would be like explaining Supertramp to a komodo dragon.” Selena’s comeback — “I don’t know what those words mean. Mike, are you in the middle of some sort of an aneurysm?” — would be better if she weren’t standing next to her chief of staff, Amy (Anna Chlumsky), whose father has just had a stroke.
- Selina lays out her agenda to her staff, with no mention of the “clean jobs” she obsessed over last season: “I want my regular one-on-one meetings. I want more responsibilities in infrastructure and education reform. I want an expanded role in deficit reduction talks. I want a Cartier fucking dildo.” Guess which phrase from that list is the only thing Amy can recall?
- Amy’s accurate guess on how to flatter her boss after a campaign speech: “It’s like a happy Nuremberg!”
- It’s always good to see Portlandia utility player Kumail Nanjiani, here playing the nerd polling expert who makes the mistake of buttering up the V-P.
- After The West Wing, The Wire, and The Good Wife, it seems old-fashioned for Veep to avoid party labels the way that inoffensive shows like Benson used to. The strongest evidence that Selina is a Democrat: She tells a crowd, “Freedom is not me-dom, it’s we-dom!”, and she’s not booed. Alternate theory: Selina Meyer is a Republican who moved swiftly up the ranks of the party because strategists thought her name would help counter the GOP’s unpopularity with Hispanic and Jewish voters. Recall that Elaine was mistaken for a Latina in a Seinfeld episode (by the boyfriend she mistakenly assumed was black).
- “We’re ahead in voter turnout in Lake County, Indiana” is a particularly unhelpful piece of data, coming hours after the polls closed, but the characters in No Parties Land have to say things that sound specific without making much sense.