It’s so good to laugh again. The state of television comedy isn’t dire, exactly, just soft. Networks are constipated with swooning rom-coms and tender family stories. Spending years with beloved (or once beloved) characters means, at a certain point, relationships start to outweigh jokes. HBO is hardly a bastion of outright laughers considering most of its half-hours are camped out on the trail blazed by Sex And The City for pint-sized dramedies. For a sitcom intent on making an audience laugh above all else, it’s either lame CBS multi-cams or acclaimed but short-order cable series. But even next to Archer and Broad City, Veep stands out. It’s one of the only comedies on television where the characters actually don’t, deep down, love one another.
On the other hand, Veep certainly plays up its relationships in season three. Not that the audience is expected to care very much about Mike’s (Matt Walsh) new marriage, Gary’s (Tony Hale) months-long relationship, or the furious sparks between Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott). These are just the kinds of developments that inevitably occur in a third-year sitcom, because the world isn’t static. Armando Iannucci’s Washington, D.C. is particularly volatile, full of gunfire banter and on-the-fly camerawork. But in the world of Veep, none of these romances matter nearly as much as who’s going to run Vice President Selena Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presidential campaign.
Veep’s refusal to tie Selena to any particular belief is part of the joke. Selena’s only real conviction is to win. But where the generality keeps previous seasons a bit flaccid, season three steers into the skid. The campaign trail is no place for stating actual positions. Selena’s flux is even dramatized by her opponents, Minnesota governor and war hero Danny Chung (Randall Park) to her left and Christian defense secretary George Maddox (Isiah Whitlock) to her right. But just because Selena’s a weasel doesn’t mean the writers are. The second episode of the new season is already in the running for America’s best abortion episode, somehow balancing heartless poll politics with an empathetic streak that extends to casually sexist asides and throwaway rejoinders from the supporting actresses.
It’s a strange feeling to root for a politician on an Iannucci show, but that’s what happens when Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays its anchor. And it has nothing to do with any tear-jerking identification with her. It’s that she’s hilarious. One of the first scenes of the season is key to Selena’s character. An advisor pumps her up for 18 months of the campaign trail by telling her that she’s out among her people—civilians as opposed to D.C. assholes—with the implicit context that they’re currently hiding out from those civilians in Selina’s hotel room. There’s a delectable moment of honesty there: That misanthropy courses throughout the ruling class. It’s in the way Selina tells an advisor who sits down on the other side of her enormous bed to go sit over there instead, and the way she doesn’t even try to disguise her disgust when an eager fuck-up from the campaign trail shows up at her headquarters. Gone is the powerless factotum in accidentally terrible photo ops of seasons past. Campaign Selena is so high on herself that she turns an improvised eulogy into a campaign speech, and the applause echoes throughout the church. In other words, it’s precisely because she’s so unlikable that she’s funny, and that’s why she’s so entertaining.
Cruelty powers many comedies derided as “just jokes.” Multi-cam sitcoms are packed with insults, and FX comedies like Archer and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia tend to exist in heightened worlds comfortable with a certain amount of character abuse. There’s more to Veep than cruelty, but the proud tradition of Malcolm Tucker’s creative insults lives on in this dog-eat-dog world of high stakes and routine debasement. “What a talking gas giant,” says Amy of a blathering politico. “It’s like listening to Jupiter.” Even the season’s reorientation carries a bit of power-worship and bullying. Selina’s West Wing liaison Jonah (Timothy Simons) is on the outs in season three, and the tables have turned. In the past Selina tended to be a social embarrassment despite the glamour of her office, and Jonah tended to be the tough-talking nobody who happened to work for the White House. Now the formula is ever so slightly tweaked, such that Selina throwing her weight around is just as funny as embarrassing her, and Jonah’s a walking humiliation without so much as an NBC page jacket to his name.
But those creative insults aren’t just about cruelty. They’re about language. No comedy on television revels in the English language like Veep. The setting is a playground for absurd political branding (“We see ourselves as very much post-tax,” says a corporate honcho) and campaign nonsense (“I can’t in all conscience politicize this as an issue”). It’s the absolute spin zone. A character on Veep can either tear apart what other people are saying or say something that others will tear apart, and whole scenes are constructed so that a character will make a speech with no content and deliver it badly besides. When Maddox asks his campaign manager what he expects him to say about an issue, he mockingly suggests, “‘Blah blah blah blah, abortion. Blah blah blah blah.’” “That sounds good to me,” says his manager. In the abortion episode, Veep’s political noise even bares some teeth. “I can’t identify myself as a woman. People can’t know that! Men hate that.”
In that love of the joke, Veep has become the clearest heir to 30 Rock and Arrested Development, and specific bits throughout the season recall both series. None of these comedy stalwarts lacks perspective or voice just because the focus is on the funny. They just don’t often inflate with gravitas. When public opinion on abortion comes back reporting “most of America standing up proudly and saying, ‘I don’t know,’” Veep is making a point. It just doesn’t get in the way of the comedy.