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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Veep: “B/ill”

Gary Cole (HBO)
Gary Cole (HBO)
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Despite some solid running gags and a premise that seems tailor made for the series, “B/ill” is a disappointment, lacking Veep’s usual comic range and creativity. The promise of the cast being dragged before Congress to give testimony is tantalizing—Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It had spectacular success with a similar storyline—but the route taken to get us there is distractingly reverse-engineered, sacrificing character in favor of plot. Selina’s administration has been beset with scandal throughout the season, with one screw up after another plaguing her brief tenure in office. Each time, the issue has been handled with some level of professionalism. Suddenly here, all of Selina’s main advisors—Ben, Kent, and Bill—are incompetent, stumbling over themselves and failing at basic skills of political self-preservation they have significant experience with, particularly keeping secrets.

Most Veep characters have a healthy history of memorable mistakes, but in “B/ill,” everyone is reckless and the episode spends little effort explaining why. Amy takes the risk for the thrill, Dan does so for money, and Gary does so for love, but despite piles of awkward exposition reminding the viewer over and over that losing the Family First vote is essential, “B/ill” never establishes why bringing in Amy and Dan to help push for failure is a problem. I’m not a political scholar and perhaps my ignorance is showing, but surely the White House sabotaging a bill they previously supported is a not infrequent occurrence. Yes, Gary promises the former staffers money, but he’s Gary—no one takes him seriously. There’s no concern over Congressman Pierce’s diplomatic posting being changed the moment he’s no longer useful. Why would Ben, Kent, and Bill incriminate themselves by paying Dan and Amy when they have nothing in writing and can easily be offered less traceable rewards instead? As soon as Gary mentions money, a paper trail is taken as a given and characters who have always shown calm in the face of conflict start running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Even if one accepts its premise, the execution of the episode leaves much to be desired. After doing the legwork to establish where the vote stands, the script fails to build up momentum to Pierce’s deciding vote, jumping from four against to a tie. Instead, “B/ill” sets up future plot points, such as Tom James’ frustration with Selina and his shiny new personality—he’s basically a more personable Ben, back when Ben was a competent ball buster. Late in the episode, Selina talks with James about the bill, questioning their decision to torpedo it, and the concerns expressed here are the most interesting material given to Julia Louis-Dreyfus throughout. Unfortunately, so much energy is spent demonizing the bill that when Louis-Dreyfus imbues that conversation with utter sincerity, giving Selina a real moment of relatability, she comes across as hopelessly foolish rather than briefly principled. It’s hard to care whether Team Meyer will be brought up on charges when every single member (again, besides Sue) makes this number of mistakes of this magnitude.

It’s a blast to watch Veep when its characters are being good at their jobs, but it’s also fun to watch them screw up. These mistakes need to be believable though, part of a trend of behavior that comes to a head. Instead most of the mistakes in this episode feel forced, a rare lack of creativity and invention from this usually fantastic writing staff. It’s notable how much this episode could have been helped by a scene or two in the episode prior of the team realizing the need to abandon the Families First bill. Then all the exchanges filling viewers in on previous, off screen conversations could be spent on active political maneuvering, rather than the higher ups berating each other in all too frequently generic ways.

Regardless of its problems, this is still Veep, which means there’s still a lot of solid to great material here. Richard and Jonah continue to be the power couple of the season and watching them take on Amy and Dan is as delightful as one would expect. The flu makeup for and performance by Louis-Dreyfus is amazing and Gary’s mothering of her and constant bickering with the other staff over Selina’s condition is cute. The entire group’s inability to follow a basic protocol in regards to sequestering Mike quickly gets old, but Matt Walsh’s performance as Mike attempts to deal with this is a lot of fun and once again, Paul Fitzgerald makes his one joke character consistently the funniest person in his scenes. With the characters set to be called before Congress, there should be plenty of fodder for a strong end to the season and perhaps even this lackluster path to that premise will feel earned in retrospect. For now though, “B/ill” leaves a sour taste in the mouth; Veep can do much better.

Stray observations:

  • I love the floral nightgown Selina spends the episode in. It’s an entertaining contrast to her usual fitted dresses.
  • In a nice character moment, Timothy Simons brings back Jonah’s defensive bang-swipe here, right before launching into his, “I am an emissary of the President!” speech.
  • It’s sweet that despite how she left the campaign, everyone is glad to see Amy. This group may not be overly affectionate with each other, but apparently they do care, at least a little. Her moment of the episode, though, is her attitude in the car talking with Dan, particularly the capping, “Unless it’s like, ‘Biiiiitch.’”
  • As for Dan, it’s hard to think of a line truer to his slimy self than, “You know at least three of these kids are probably mine.”
  • Sorry Tom, but “The President is qualified to be President because she’s President” is not a particularly good line. Better keep practicing for your debate.
  • Between detaining a journalist in Iran, hacking into government medical records, and enlisting some freelancers to help quash a vote, it seems bizarre that the entire Meyer administration loses their cool over this.