Culture

Television

‘Veep’: No bad deed shall go punished

By Craig Mathieson
The sharp comedy bows out as Trump takes politics beyond satire

Veep

Being in a tight spot is a persistent problem for the characters in Veep. Whether through incompetence or craven expedience, the characters on the American political satire often find themselves caught out in potentially damaging situations. How fictional American politician Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff members find a way out of these potential crises is the one of the show’s strengths; the escape clause can be both farcical and illustrative. All too often devious transference or simply the slackness of the fictional political system allows the perpetrator to get off – in the show’s acerbic inner logic, no bad deed shall apparently go punished.

But as the seventh and final season of Veep unfolds (Foxtel Showcase, new episode weekly), it’s the show itself that is in a tight spot. How do you send up American politics when it has been transformed to such horrific extent by the real-life presidency of Donald Trump? When Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci brought his cluster-bomb insults and disdain for those who facilitate power to Washington D.C. in 2012, Barack Obama was near the end of his first term. Back then, a storyline where Selina might have to deny a rumour that she’d referred to “shithole countries” would have been an absurd exaggeration of the White House status quo. In 2019 it’s just a minor entry on the cripplingly long list of Trump’s transgressions.

To be fair, the series, which is now run by producer David Mandel, remains a precision-made piece of scabrous workmanship, capable of wringing bile from any pretence of pathos and finding the bleak humanity in horribly defining moments. The expertly delivered dialogue moves at a screwball pace, running multiple conversations through a single scene as the exposition gets a live commentary. Selena, a narcissist who pursues power for the sake of it, is still both awful and hilarious, and her team are accomplices bemused by their own culpability. But the new season – the first material written since Trump took office – has been overtaken by the times. It’s not easy to send up the despairing failures that now perpetually play out through the news cycle.

In season seven Selina, who began as a lame duck vice-president, then had an eight-month administration due to her boss’s resignation, and subsequently fell cruelly just short of the line when she won her (unstated) party’s nomination, is back on the Iowa campaign trail. “New. Selina. Now.” is her slogan, which masks her lack of genuine motivation. Repeatedly asked by her staff to offer a soundbite for why she wants to be the president, she replies, “If you want me to use my own goddamn words, write me something to say.” The political logic remains telling. After another mass shooting in the first episode – there are three or four, it’s deliberately hard to keep count – Selina asks who would be the better perpetrator for her politically: a Muslim or a white guy. The answer is her only interest in the matter.

As she recoils at meeting the public she celebrates in her speeches as “real Americans”, castigates her staff, and chases fundraising cheques from a Peter Thiel–like mega-donor (William Fichtner), Selina operates in a fictional realm without Trump, but where his shadow nonetheless extends. In the third episode, Selina is struggling at a CNN debate against a young black senator from New York, Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye), whom she desperately wants to smear. When Selina’s daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), who’s present because her baby provides an excellent campaign prop, begs her mother not to do that, Selina rails against her liberal sensitivity. This public tirade against her own daughter inspires Selina, who goes back out and sternly tells Talbot that she should “man up” and deal with her problems. All in the audience jump to their feet and offer Selina rousing support.

Trump’s abusive self-interest has been channelled through Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), a particularly egregious White House functionary who has failed upwards into a Congressional seat and now a presidential campaign. A grotesque idiot whose mistakes – such as marrying his former stepsister – go so far past the plausible that they circle back to actual current Republican extremism, Jonah can’t get through an interview meant to fix his last bungle without starting a fresh one. While he’s a punchline, Jonah’s offensiveness and huckster-like gambits are suffused with the Trump ethos.

Trump is beyond satire, always a tweet beyond what any wit could imagine and an opinion lower than any comic could conjure. Keeping him at a distance is probably a wise move, although the fourth episode dangles a foreign power possibly offering to interfere in the electoral process. It all sets Veep up for a wild, if distorted, finale. Few satires are so sharp after seven seasons, and devotees – of the political critique or the gorgeously crafted invective – are still being satisfied. But it’s the right decision to bow out before the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway. There may be no way out of the tight spots in that looming race for any of us.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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Veep

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