Photo: Colleen Hayes (HBO)
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Veep has been off the air for the better part of two years. When we left Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and company, she was planning her re-entry into the political sphere, having decided to run for president again. It was disappointing, if not unexpected, at the time. What candidate could overcome the criminal charges and scandals Selina had faced in her recent history? Sure it’d be entertaining, but it stretched credulity, even more than Jonah’s (Timothy Simons) hopefully doomed run. Oh, what a difference two years make. Now, Selina running again feels natural and appropriate, her scandals easily surmountable or distracted from. The only question is how much comedy showrunner David Mandel and the rest of the Veep team can wring out of this familiar ground.

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The answer, at least in the premiere, is plenty. From the very first scene, the cast is in fine form, dialogue zipping back and forth, a reminder of just how great the whole ensemble is, as well as the writers, editors, and director Mandel. It’s comfortable and terrible and hilarious, and it feels like absolutely no time has passed. Selina’s campaign is off to a rocky start, or it would be, if she could manage to announce her candidacy. Compared to Jonah, though, she’s sitting pretty. While Selina is stumbling out of the gate in Iowa, Jonah is in New Hampshire, embroiled in an incest scandal. Jonah has reunited with and married his ex-step-sister—a fact none of his team managed to catch, for understandable reasons—and their previous connection has leaked to the press. The premiere hops back and forth between both campaigns as Selina tries to decide why she wants to be president, Jonah refuses to deal with his animosity toward his seemingly kindly ex-step-father (John Carroll Lynch), and both teams struggle to wrangle their difficult and demanding candidates.

While Ben (Kevin Dunn), Kent (Gary Cole), Bill (Diedrich Bader), and Teddy (Patton Oswalt) withstand verbal abuse and extreme frustration attempting to manage Selina and Jonah, Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is deciding whether to have Dan’s (Reid Scott) baby or get an abortion. She claims she’s ready to single parent, but her actions say otherwise. She’d like Dan to step up, but he’s not interested in being a parent and his request that she “hit [him] up on Venmo” for his share of the cost of the abortion is indication enough that she should be running far, far away instead of desperately hoping he’ll come around. Chlumsky is always terrific on Veep, but this storyline gives her even more to play with than usual and watching her pivot Amy back and forth between clever and cool in her work life and exasperatedly emotional in her limited off time is a lot of fun.

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Photo: Colleen Hayes (HBO)

“Iowa” is well-balanced, finding time for each of the large ensemble to shine, but the very best moments are Selina’s. Seemingly stumped on the question of why she wants to be president, Selina asks Marjorie (Clea Duvall), Amy, and Gary (Tony Hale) why they would want the job. She opens up about her motivations later in her hotel room, after Gary takes her laptop and starts transcribing for her as she spitballs. Louis-Dreyfus builds momentum through the scene as Selina stops mincing her words, eventually letting loose a torrent of entitlement and spite. It’s her turn; America owes her, and this time, she wants a war. With only Gary in the room, Selina knows she can be honest, and the words that tumble out aren’t revelatory (other than the war, which seems to surprise even her). They’re heartfelt and delicious, and Louis-Dreyfus revels in each of them. And Selina knows she can’t say them publicly, so as soon as she’s expelled them and purged the frustration that’s been building each time Leon (Brian Huskey) asks her why she’s running, she exhales, centers herself, and settles for giving Americans “a better deal or some fucking crap like that”, a delightful bit of shade from the Veep writers to the DNC. It’s a great moment and one that sets the tone for the entire season.

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The political landscape has shifted dramatically since Veep began. Earlier seasons of the show felt cutting and barbed, exaggerating the extremes of the political world for satirical effect, but the real world of American politics has made itself impossible to parody. (Events that seemed comedically outlandish in previous seasons of Veep have actually happened.) The writers wisely don’t even try, focusing instead on staying true to the characters and the world they’ve built. The glimmers of humanity that once softened Selina’s killer political insticts have been all but snuffed out, and that hardening, rather than the softening that usually accompanies a comedy this late in its run, speaks to a harsher, more divided political atmosphere. Selina’s back and she’s as terrible as ever, and that’s precisely why she still has a good shot of making it back to the White House. Everyone and everything is broken. Take a swig of Ben’s go juice, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Photo: Colleen Hayes (HBO)

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Veep! It’s been too long.
  • The premiere only gets better with multiple viewings and a big reason why is because each cast member is on their A-game, constantly reacting to all the action within a given scene, not just the character furthering the plot. Tony Hale’s look at Brian Huskey in the first scene when Leon calls Selina “Mommy” is amazing, for one, and I love that Ben actually wants a copy of Amy’s analysis of the previous campaign.
  • Another reason to rewatch is the premiere’s running dialogue gags. The writers fit in “New. Selina. Now” in various entertaining ways, the best being Selina’s angry storm back onto her plane, and Richard’s (Sam Richardson) delight at the number 11 only gets funnier with each mention.
  • Making Mike (Matt Walsh) part of the press corps following Selina is a great move. He’s no Leon, but based on his track record, he’ll stumble onto something big before too long.
  • I was leery of the writers bringing back Teddy, after the resolution of Jonah’s sexual assault storyline, but the premiere won me over by drawing attention to, rather than ignoring, Jonah and Teddy’s history.
  • Oh dear. Not unlike Selina, I seem to have forgotten about Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), Marjorie, and Little Richard. I did not expect Clea Duvall to have such a significant presence, which was a welcome surprise. She continues to crush Marjorie’s deadpan delivery, and Sarah Sutherland continues to commit fully to Catherine’s emotional struggles and ugly crying.
  • Veep has built up a ridiculous guest cast over its run. If the premiere is any indication, we can expect to see a lot of familiar faces as it heads towards its series finale. This episode, that includes Margaret Colin, Paul Scheer, and of course, Hugh Laurie.
  • Veep’s interstitial scoring is great, as usual, and I also want to single out the costuming. Everyone looks fabulous (or appropriately not-fabulous), and putting Louis-Dreyfus in that striking red dress for the first half of the episode, while everyone else is in blues and grays, works really well. It not only keeps the viewers’ eyes on Selina, it feels like a character point. Amy knows not to wear red, because that’s Selina’s color.

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