Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep.” The show’s writers tried to steer clear of satirizing the Trump Presidency, but some similarities have been hard to avoid.
When discussing the sixth season of “Veep” in interviews back in April, the showrunner David Mandel—who took over for the creator of the series, Armando Iannucci, after Season 4—was at pains to point out that the plot for the season had been finalized in the early summer, when hardly anyone thought that Donald Trump would become President, and that the first episodes had already been filmed by Election Day. By ending the previous season with Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) losing the Presidential election, the series had moved the action out of the White House, and had presumably given itself breathing room from comparisons with whichever Administration would be in office as it aired. The writers even went so far as to strip several jokes from scripts that, because of unforeseen real-life vulgarity, were judged to veer too close to the familiar, including a riff on the word “pussy” and a reference to a golden shower.
But then Trump and his inner circle moved into the Oval Office, and from the start began acting, well, “Veep”-ish—brazenly lying about matters large and small, shouting behind closed doors, calling each other names in the press, searching for the light switches in the West Wing, and setting several small fires each day, only to attempt to extinguish them with gasoline. The resemblance hardened on the last day of March, when, during a public signing ceremony in the Oval Office for two executive orders on trade, President Trump left the room without actually signing the documents, trailed by questions from the press about a tweet he had written defending his former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn. Jesse McLaren, of BuzzFeed, spliced a clip of this scene into the “Veep” closing credits, the spot in each episode reserved for one final indignity or act of incompetence, and it looked right at home—down to the frozen looks on the faces of the people standing behind the President, the Vice-President scuttling over to the Resolute desk to grab the documents, and the sound of reporters, off-camera, murmuring to each other than Trump had, indeed, not signed the orders.
Even Mandel had to admit that “Veep” and Trump invited comparison. “As I’ve thought so much more about Trump in the last year, there’s nobody more Trumpy than Selina,” he wrote in a column for the Hollywood Reporter. “So much of the show is her barging into things head first, saying the wrong thing, screwing up, getting caught, lying about it.”
So it goes this season. Selina remains surrounded by a team of aides who are neither competent nor especially loyal. Her control over this un-merry band of idiots is finally slipping, partly because of her reduced circumstances but also because rule by venomous abuse may ultimately have diminishing returns. (After you’ve called someone a “Jolly Green Jizzface,” it’s hard to imagine anything new stunning him into obedience.) One of Selina’s aides has ditched her for a job on television; she’s been abandoned by her secretary, the only capable person in her cohort; and even her puppy-loyal body man, Gary (Tony Hale), has summoned the courage to offer dissent—if not in words, then at least in tortured facial expressions and anguished noises.
Throughout the season, Selina refuses to sit still long enough to begin work on her memoir, while her former speechwriter attempts to claw anecdotes out of her, recalling the experience of the “Art of the Deal” ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, who told Jane Mayer that, during their collaboration, Trump “seemed to remember almost nothing of his youth, and made it clear that he was bored.” When Selina finally does reflect on her past, it’s revealed that everything she thought she knew about her supposedly idyllic youth was a lie. It’s hard to think of Selina, playing backgammon at night with Gary, without recalling the reports of Trump spending his evenings alone in the White House, watching cable news into the wee hours, complaining about fake news to his longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller.
Perhaps nowhere have the similarities between Meyer and Trump been clearer than on the global stage. Trump, during his recent trip abroad—touching a glowing orb during a supremely odd photo op with the President of Egypt and the King of Saudi Arabia, appearing to shove the Prime Minister of Montenegro out of his way to get a better position among a gaggle of world leaders at the NATO meeting in Brussels, and engaging in a comically extended macho-handshake battle with the newly elected French President, Emmanuel Macron—looked queasily similar to Selina on her various foreign trips. So far in Season 6, as an ex-President, Selina has travelled to the Republic of Georgia as an election monitor, where she disparages democracy and cozies up to a pair of oligarchs, playing them off each other in exchange for thinly veiled bribes. In Qatar, she again plays world leaders against each other for favors. In “Veep,” diplomacy is simply business with more money on the line. In Saudi Arabia, Trump appeared at ease and slightly in awe of the luxurious pageantry in the Kingdom, muting his former belligerent tone as he struck deals with the Saudis, while failing to muster any mention of human rights. Meanwhile, Selina, speaking at a forum for human rights in the Middle East, proclaimed, in one of the best lines yet in the series, “Human rights are part of a diverse pageant of different priorities.”
As her setbacks mount, Selina becomes increasingly bitter, and, in an interesting development that reflects the current moment, more misogynistic. In the beginning of the show, Selina seemed to be a canny woman who recognized that, in order to succeed in Washington, she needed to play and win a man’s game. “I’m fluent in bastard,” she said, way back in the first episode. Now, having been spurned by voters for perhaps a final time, she has fully internalized a kind of nihilistic misogyny. After someone suggests that she consider hiring a woman to design her Presidential library, she scoffs, “We’re not redoing a kitchen here.” Later, while promising to match a wealthy donor with a member of Congress who can further his agenda, she says, “We can find you a man, or a woman. But it’ll probably be a man, if you want to get anything done.”
Like many other shows about politics, “Veep” conceives of government as nothing more than a venue for the furthering of personal ambition and the airing of grievance for the people who work in it. It simply takes this premise to its dankest and most outrageous ends, yielding a version of politics that is, in its way, darker than anything you see on “House of Cards.” “Veep” owes this pitch-black streak to Iannucci, who, dating back to the great BBC show “The Thick of It” and the Iraq War satire “In the Loop,” has honed a comedic vision of politics entirely centered on the daily cycle of crisis and spin. This was distilled in the first episode of “Veep,” when a character enters a room, asking, “What colossal fuck-up are we dealing with this morning?” It’s a show about desperate short-term survival, personal elevation, mutual enrichment, and a disregard for voters. In the third season, the darkest joke was Selina trying to nail down a non-position on abortion, as if a middle-aged American politician could somehow, after decades in the public eye, still not have a stand on one of the central issues of American political life. It was supposed to be profane farce. With Trump, we now have the country’s first entirely unmitigated Iannucci Administration—whose daily crises, ridiculous and otherwise, add up to a larger national one. News of a big staff shakeup at the White House looms: maybe they should bring in Malcolm Tucker.
“Veep,” meanwhile, is as funny as ever, even as its central character has turned more sinister. Yet, these days, the laughter is more pained. In the past, we’ve rooted for Selina—even at her most spiteful, short-tempered, petty, and paranoid—if for no other reason than that she at least recognized the essential hypocrisy of politics as the show portrays it, and of her role in it. Now, with a real-life Selina in the White House, we’re faced with the realization that we’ve been pulling for the monster all along.