Political comedy has a real Tales of Two Cities conundrum right now. It’s the best of times because there has never been more to skewer or more outlets to skewer it from. It’s also the worst of times because we’ve lost most of the nuance. Almost everything falls into two categories, really. The first is people explaining things straight into the camera with a computer-generated box over their shoulder that provides context and zingers. The second is people yelling straight into the camera with such force that you worry the sound waves might crack the lens. Everyone is very earnest and very concerned and they just need to tell you these things so much. Comedy has become the news. The news has become comedy. It’s a whole thing.
This is fine, mostly. There’s certainly a place for each of those things and, when done well (Seth Meyers doing “A Closer Look,” Samantha Bee’s righteous fury, John Oliver’s deep dives), they can add something to the discourse that is very much welcome in very chaotic times.
They do suck up a lot of oxygen, though, these explanations of current events and pleas for sanity. They crowd out the more subtle takes on politics, the ones that come at things from an angle instead of head-on. It’s not the biggest problem we have right now. Not even close. But it is one of many reasons I’m excited to have Veep back for one last dance.
Here is Veep, in short, for those who need background or a refresher: Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a nakedly ambitious politician who starts the series as Vice President and ebbs and flows into and out of power as things progress. She is surrounded by a team of conniving and/or hapless staffers who have one eye on her interests and one on their own. It is fast like 30 Rock and mean like Succession and profane like… actually, no show is in Veep’s category when it comes to profanity. It has turned cussing into a fine art, with flair and gusto and insults like “Jolly Green Jizz-Face” flying around, the latter of which was delivered to Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), a gangly human subreddit who is himself responsible for one of the funniest and most profane moments on the show.
Yes, I do see how this could get confusing. I just decried the loss of subtlety and nuance in political comedy and then gleefully embedded a clip of a grown man swearing in front of children. It’s a different kind of nuance, though. Veep takes the real world and cranks it up a bit, to comedic effect, instead of pointing a mirror at the real world and demanding we stare into its eyes. It takes what we know and tilts it about 30 degrees to the side, then sprinkles in a series of insults. So many insults. A supercut of all of them would probably last 25 minutes at this point, what with six seasons of material to dig through. I’d watch. I’d watch and I’d cackle and people would look at me like I’m insane because I’d have my headphones on. Veep is very much a headphones-on kind of show. Which you probably realized if you clicked on the above video in a public setting. Uh, whoops. Sorry.
This brings us to the other important thing here: Veep returns for its seventh and final season this weekend after being off of HBO’s schedule since June 2017, almost two full years. (The reasons for its absence are understandable and far from ideal: Series star and national treasure Julia Louis-Dreyfus was battling cancer.) A lot has happened over that period. Too much, some would say. The real world has been catching up to the strange, profane, cynical world of the show. Reid Scott, who plays campaign staffer Dan Egan on the show, touched on this a little bit in an interview earlier this week.
“I don’t know that a show like Veep would get off the ground today because I think it almost relied on the contrast. When Obama was in office, things were, in my opinion, a little more peaceful and calm, and so the show was showing you how the sausage was made and how these people were despicable and how it was all manic and crazy, and you needed that contrast in order to get the satire. Now, you just turn on the news and you see how manic and crazy and despicable everybody is.”
There’s some truth in there. I’m not sure a show like Veep would get a greenlight today, for both the reasons he said and the reasons I laid out up front. Political comedy today is much more “Alec Baldwin scrunching his face into a pucker for a couple SNL cold opens” than it is a place for layered satire.
But that’s also why we need Veep so much right now. The people on the show are all despicable, yes, except for my beloved Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), a sweet man who somehow flourishes among the predators, like a golden retriever puppy who runs with a pack of wolves. But they’re despicable in an escapist way. There’s still an undercurrent of realism to it all (the internet is littered with “Veep is closer to reality than shows like The West Wing” pieces), but there’s nothing on-the-nose about it. It’s safe, it’s fun, it’s a way to acknowledge politics is a cesspool and Washington is broken without feeling existential dread about it. That counts as a win in 2019.
I’ll be sad when the show ends later this year, for a bunch of reasons. One is that I just like it a lot and don’t want it to leave. The bigger one is that it will signal the end of era, one where there was room for this kind of satire. Sometimes, after a day of having the news blasted at me with a fire hose, I don’t want more news from my comedy. I want fun from my comedy, even if it has an edge. That’s what Veep is: Razor-sharp satire that exposes a truth and occasionally features extremely graphic and accurate metaphors about croissants. We are blessed to have it back in our lives, even if it’s just temporary, just for a much-deserved swan song.