Every TV show set in D.C. has to grapple with a basic question: Why would anyone want to watch a show about politics in the first place? “The West Wing” played to viewers seeking a nobler version of politics. “House of Cards” does the opposite: It runs with politics-as-bloodsport to the limits of melodrama. “Veep,” inaugurating its third season on Sunday night, makes a different bet. It is a show for those who see our venal, degraded capital city as fitting subject for the blackest of nihilist comedy.
Season three brings a few small changes—for one, sad-sack press guy Mike McClintock is now happily married, and therefore a lot more fun to watch—and one big change: Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is running for president. Selina’s move pulls the show inside-out. Before, the joke was that the vice president had no power. Now the joke is politics itself. All of it.
When the first season of “Veep” aired on HBO two years ago, the show was predictable and unambitious. Each week, Selina Meyer and her cadre of flunkies matched their feeble wits against the unseen president and the predatory press corps, and each week they seemed to come up short. Louis-Dreyfus was as captivating as ever, but otherwise I couldn’t find much inspiration for tuning in. The same thing was always happening—which is to say, nothing was happening. Season two began a transition—more swearing, more screwball laughs, even less reverence—that is now fully fledged in season three. The show now seems more confident and more keenly observed. The better news for political junkies: by widening its comedic ambit from its characters to the electoral murk in which they operate, “Veep” suddenly feels a lot more relevant.
In the first five episodes (the contents of the promotional screeners that HBO provided to The New Republic; beware of mild spoilers), “Veep” deftly takes up a wide range of political staples. There’s the abortion debate—her aides are reduced to picking at random the number of weeks of pregnancy before which abortions should be legal—and the seamy interdependence of Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley. A Zuckerberg-esque CEO of a company called Clovis asks for Meyer’s help in ending the repatriation tax. (The real-life Zuckerberg has made immigration reform his pet cause and founded the advocacy group FWD.us.)
Charging through all of it is the veep herself, more amped-up and power-crazed than ever. Swelling with self-regard and dropping f-bombs with every other word, Selena is less likable and far less pitiable than the disrespected factotum of season one, and yet—and this is the writers’ neatest trick—she is also more fun to watch. Her journey to the dark side of the carnivorous office-seeker is now complete, and we are freed from the responsibility to feel bad for her when things go wrong. We can focus instead on what it is she asked to contend with: The ever-changing demands of skittish allies, the vagaries of intra-staff competition, and the open triangulation between rival candidates.
This being “Veep,” of course, things still go wrong as a rule—but whereas in seasons past the parade of disasters could feel trivializing or silly, season three stays buoyant with frequent nods to real-world storylines. Katherine, Selina’s long-suffering daughter, evokes Chelsea Clinton as she screams at her mother: “Your entire life has been leading up to this, and as a result of that, my entire life has been awful. … The only thing that is going to make it worthwhile is if I become the daughter of the next president of the United States.” And we often find Selina in the position of conceding what President Obama never can. “I’m not going to be able to pass a single piece of legislation that’s really going to make a fuck of a difference in your life,” she says in a fit of giggling, backstage honesty.
But if the show nails the larger currents underlying politics—the dynasties, the ambitions, the hopelessly quixotic campaigns—it is not so great on some of the details. Shows dealing with politics invite scrutiny of their commitment to tactilerealism—of sets, of props, of the bureaucratic systems they portray. (Part of what Clinton-era “West Wing” fans loved was its fidelity, in even the smallest desktop knicknacks, to what the White House actually looked like.) Here, “Veep” is weaker: Episodes can be distracting for the lack of, well, people. It’s understandable that there needs to be a small crew of characters to keep the farce going; gags and capers that work when they’re small-scale might not translate to a more realistically broad solar system of staffers. But it grates on me that Amy, Dan, Mike, Gary, and Sue do literally everything for the vice president, from scheduling to speechwriting. In season three, they actually become the leaders of her nascent campaign staff, too, without quitting their day jobs, which seems both unwise and legally questionable: The Hatch Act dictates that taxpayer-funded official business and campaign activities must be kept separate. There isn’t even any sense of bustle: Selina is often wandering around from desk to desk like the boss at a small startup. An actual vice president, of course, would have her day scheduled to the minute. And many of the snafus that befall Team Meyer also are glaringly small-ball: A mean-spirited “Saturday Night Live” sketch throws Dan into perhaps his least convincing tantrum of the series to date. Do the show’s writers think the Biden staff actually gets angry about all those sketches and Onion spoofs?
Still, the show, especially in season three, gets it right where it counts—which is its critiques of modern political lameness. Episode one has Selina on a book tour in Iowa, signing copies of a perfectly—i.e., pathetically—rendered McMemoir called Some New Beginnings. Episode three, covering her announcement speech, is a delicious takedown of candidates’ reliance on those fastidiously diverse human backdrops. (Sue, ever deadpan: “I need the foster mom and the heroic restaurateur to switch places, please.”) When would-be congressional endorsers demand that Meyer drop her “universal childcare” plank (seemingly a riff on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K crusade), the VP laments: “I’m supposed to let a bunch of dead-eyed white guys shit all over everything I stand for?” True to today’s form, she caves.
The outcome of the race may be a mystery, but “Veep” will never be a thriller—and the team behind the show was smart to switch things up. Antics against a backdrop of politics are bound to get old; antics fueled by politics have the potential to show us something new about how our country works. On “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood cuts deals and amasses power—but it feels outdated, a version of Johnson-era machinations, at best. On “Veep,” Selina Meyer cuts deals and ends up with as little power as she started with—and even less self-respect. That is politics as we know it today.
Reid Cherlin, a former White House assistant press secretary, is a writer living in Brooklyn.