Early on in “Omaha,” the first episode of “Veep’s” sixth season, former president Selina Meyer remarks, “to have the American people and Congress reject me was devastating.” She says it with a grinning smile and politically opportune enthusiasm that has been the hallmark of the not-so-savvy public figure in HBO’s now classic comedy series. When the camera goes wide we discover she’s speaking to Dan (Reid Scott), her former spokesman who is now a CBS This Morning co-host. And you instantly realize the show hasn’t lost a beat. Because, frankly, what else would Dan’s character be doing?
The “historic” loss at the end of season five had many wondering what direction executive producers David Mandel and Morgan Sackett would take a show that has always focused on Selina’s desperate political ambitions and ascension to the presidency (a goal she achieved for only eight months). This season starts a year after those events and not only hilariously shows the ramifications of the defeat on Meyer’s life, but those who clung to her bubble as well.
Yes, an increasingly exasperated Gary (Tony Hale) is still faithfully at her side but he’s now joined by Richard (Sam Richardson) who gleefully seems to be the only one in the room who ever seems to understand what’s really going on. Amy (Anna Chlumsky with better material than last season) is engaged to a painfully earnest candidate for the Governor of Nevada and has transformed into the unfiltered, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect version of Selina she never thought she’d be. Ben (Kevin Dunn) is having trouble relating to millennials as a lobbyist for Uber, Jonah (Timothy Simmons) may be a member of congress, but he’s as painfully un-self aware as ever (he argues on the House floor against school lunch programs – whoops, too real?) and Kent (Gary Cole) is once again grimacing through it all hating his job as his Jonah’s Chief of Staff. As for Mike (Matt Walsh), let’s just say he didn’t realize he was becoming a stay at home dad fulfilling that dream of adopting some Chinese babies. (Sadly, Selina’s former secretary, Sue, played by Sufe Bradshaw, is no where to be found in the show’s first three episodes. Perhaps she appears down the road?).
Although Selena’s reaction to her defeat led to some time spent in a “spa” to recover after last season, she’s once again motivated to do something for her legacy and in some ways there is more comedy to mine for an ex-president than you might expect. First off, Selena has a foundation that keeps changing focus (and can barely get donations). After she makes an spur of the moment remark to the press that her foundation will also tackle AIDS, Ben, who has been summoned back into the fold after getting fired by Uber, notes, “We can’t do anything about AIDS.” Selena quickly retorts, “Who are you, Ronald Reagan?”
The writing team and the actors know these characters so well that they handle their often bizarre new circumstances like a well-oiled machine. There is a rhythm to their banter – often with Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the center of it – that is beautiful to watch. This is a group of actors who just won the league championship and are ready to pull off a threepeat (or in this case a sixpeat). You wouldn’t expect that from a satire about Washington this far into its run, but even in today’s strange political environment it still feels fresh.
That, of course, is the elephant in the room. After the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s first 100 days in the White House it’s seemed like a tough task for “Veep” to come up with any scenario as bizarre and over-the-top as what the world has experienced over the past 18 months. And perhaps they are slightly lucky they are now exploring the comedic opportunities of a barely in office president floundering in trying to figure out what exactly to do next. Selena’s attempts to get a presidential library off the ground, deal with yet another scandal thanks to her ex-husband (a wonderfully slimy David Pasquesi), the fear of being a grandmother, an engagement to oversee a major election in Georgia (the incredibly funny third episode) and, of course, that itch to run again are – forgive the expression – comedy gold.
At the center of it all, of course, is Louis-Dreyfus. In fact, as great as the show’s ensemble is it simply wouldn’t be without her incredible talents to bring it all together. Acclaimed actors and actresses are victims of over-hype, but after watching these three episodes back to back to back you might think Louis-Dreyfus isn’t hyped enough.
“Veep” also adds some great veterans to the mix including Paul Scheer as Dan’s morning show producer, Margaret Colin as the grumpy veteran news personality who eventually gets rid of all her co-hosts, Amy Brenneman as a classmate of Selina’s at Smith College who is as out of touch as Selena is and Stephen Fry as a flirtatious Georgian presidential candidate who hasn’t fully recovered from an attempt to poison him. A fan favorite also returns in the “Georgia” episode, but that’s one pleasant surprise we simply won’t spoil.
The only quibble anyone could have over what’s screened so far is that the second episode, “Library,” is slightly less funny than “Omaha” and “Georgia.” But, out of context it would be funnier than anything else on television. That’s quite a standard. [A-]
“Veep” premieres this Sunday, April 16 at 10:30 on HBO.