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Selina Meyer and her frequently incompetent staff are back for another season of political maneuvering, and now that Selina’s ascended to the presidency, the stakes are higher than ever. “Joint Session” both acknowledges and backs away from this, centering on Selina’s first (and potentially, only) State of the Union address while relegating international incidents to single-line mentions from various members of staff. This approach works well: Selina may be under tremendous scrutiny and facing one of her biggest challenges yet, but though it’s a high-stress day for the team, the only people who’ll be directly impacted by their success or failure are the characters themselves. Given their track record, easing them into their new responsibilities can only be a good thing.

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It’s hard to tell exactly how much time has passed between seasons. Selina is still giddy over her elevation, Gary isn’t adjusting well to his limited access to her, and Mike is just happy the president knows his name. Yet everyone, besides Gary, seems relaxed and confident in their job; there’s no nervousness or excited energy over being the core staff to the president. It would be nice to see some zeal from the team, who are theoretically in their dream jobs. Selina is passionate about her Family First bill, but no one else is particularly fired up about governing and it would be neat if even one of the characters betrayed a hint of an idealistic side.

While the looming State of the Union address should provide narrative momentum to the premiere, starting the episode in media res and then flashing back 24 hours strips the speechwriting scenes of their potential. Rather than getting invested in Jim, Dan, and Mike’s attempts to pull off each rewrite, the audience sits back and waits for them to fail. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ performance as Selina walks up to the podium and faces a blank prompter is fantastic, but this moment isn’t worth what knowing it’s coming costs the rest of the episode. Even more disappointing is Selina’s “FUTURE WHATEVER” improvising. Instead of showing her recovery and giving a rare glimpse of the political acumen that has brought her so far, the episode cuts back and forth between her speech and the team’s reactions, having Ken and Amy describe how great it is. As it is, the scene is fine, with a solid performance from Louis-Dreyfus and lines from Ken and Amy that vastly oversell what is shown, but are memorable and fun. However this is the kind of scene Louis-Dreyfus, with the right dialogue, could have made a season or even series highlight, and it’s strange to see the show waste the opportunity.

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Similarly odd is the encounter between Timothy Simons’ Jonah and Patton Oswalt’s Teddy Sykes. Having Teddy grope Jonah in a demonstration of dominance is unprecedented for the series. Rather than played for laughs, as the Finnish Prime Minister’s husband’s groping of Selina was in “Helsinki,” this scene is played straight. Simons’ reaction is one of confusion and disbelief and the instant Teddy’s done making his point to Jonah, Oswalt’s smile drops to a scowl. It’s a dark moment, one lingered on and left without a score, adding to its uncomfortableness. Muddying the water is the director’s humorous approach to the beginning and end of the scene, highlighting the height differential between Simons and Oswalt using low angle and over the shoulder shots of Jonah. The scene starts out funny, quickly changes, and tries to switch back at the end, making for an effectively hollow and disturbing exchange. Wherever this is going, it’s new territory for Veep and a surprising inclusion in an otherwise comedic premiere.

Despite these issues, there’s plenty to enjoy in “Joint Session.” The cast as a whole is in excellent form, with new season regular Sam Richardson a welcome addition and returnees Diedrich Bader and David Rasche fantastic in their brief scenes. Veep’s trademark profanity-laden dialogue is back, with Sue getting some of the episode’s best lines including the delightful, “Why would shit hit fuck? Shit doesn’t hit fuck,” and Louis-Dreyfus all but shaking with rage at the end of the episode is great. Ericsson jockeying for Amy’s job should be a blast, as should Selina’s attempts to push through her bill, and the never-subtle Jonah trying to spy on Team Meyer can only lead to bad things for him, and laughs for the audience. The Meyer White House has spectacularly failed its first big test. If the rest of Selina’s eight months are similarly entertaining, this will be a fun season of Veep.

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Stray observations:

  • Armando Iannucci has announced he’s leaving Veep at the end of the season. Though the series has not yet been picked up for season five, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s David Mandel has been tapped to take over as showrunner, implying a renewal is imminent.
  • Selina looks fabulous throughout the pilot, but the bit of costuming I most enjoy is the new vice president wearing a particularly short, but nice, tie.
  • The Prime Minister of India sent Selina a golden duck. Is this gift hinting at a lame duck presidency for Selina, or will the team get their act together and land her the nomination?
  • It’s amazing how much is crammed into this episode, but when characters speak as quickly as they do here, the scenes whiz by. That being said, Ericsson speaks for the entire audience when he says, “Good, because that last minute was a very long minute.”
  • Anna Chlumsky’s performance as Amy talks with Ericsson is wonderful and her clear standout moment this episode. Cutthroat Amy is the best Amy.
  • Partially swallowed or almost missed lines often wind up being some of my favorites. This week, it’s Kevin Dunn with, “That’s the long and shit of it.”
  • Louis-Dreyfus gets a lot of strong material throughout the premiere, but three moments particularly stand out: Selina talking about her mother, her delivery of “There are literally no words,” and her punctuated pause between each word of, “obsolete metal giant dildos.” Welcome back, Veep. It’s been too long!

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