Change is weird. Most of the time, it’s also hard, especially when the change is made when things are going well. If things had been going poorly at the time they got switched up, there wouldn’t be that much pressure, because hey, you’re just working with what you have, and any success is a bonus. But to come in at a high point and be expected to keep that up, when the person who just left is a universally respected figure… that’s tough. And it’s one of the main reasons this season of Veep was so incredible.
But let’s back up. Back in April of last year, the creator and showrunner of Veep, Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci, decided to leave the show. The exit wasn’t an ugly one, according to all the involved parties. It had more to do with Iannucci wanting to be back home closer to his family than anything else. But whatever the reason, it left HBO in a bit of a dicey spot. Here it had this whip-smart, award-winning comedy with a loaded ensemble cast and a comedy legend and national treasure as its star, and now the whole thing was on the verge of going rudderless, just flailing about at sea, bouncing from wave to wave like a lifeboat in a storm.
Enter David Mandel, a former executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm and a writer on the later seasons of Seinfeld, who took over as showrunner heading into this season. In a way, this resumé made him kind of perfect for the job, because a) I mean, as far as comedy chops go, it’s hard to do a whole lot better than “wrote on Seinfeld and was part of the brain trust on Curb,” and b) he already had experience with a showrunner leaving a beloved show, as he was on the staff when Larry David left Seinfeld after the show’s seventh season. And both of those jobs had helped him develop a working relationship with Louis-Dreyfus, who championed him among the cast and crew heading into the new season.
That was a pretty great place to start from, if nothing else, but it didn’t answer the most important question facing the show: Uh, would it be any good? Up until the showrunner swap, Veep had very much been an Armando Iannucci joint, from the floral bursts of creative profanity to the slightly skewed, outsider-y perspective on American politics. Replacing a singular voice like that is tricky at best and borderline impossible at worst. Examples include:
- Community, which fired showrunner Dan Harmon after the fourth season and replaced him with veteran comedy writers David Port and Moses Guarascio, who were tasked with making the show more “relatable,” leading to a watered-down version of the show that the small, but passionate audience once loved, pleasing basically no one.
- The West Wing, which lost showrunner Aaron Sorkin after the fourth season, and lost some of the sparkle it had in its early run, replacing the lightning fast dialogue and insider-y plots about Washington with multi-episode arcs about, like, Donna getting blown up.
I point that out less to heap on the people who stepped in to replace the departing showrunners than to point out just how hard this all is. So Mandel and the cast really had their work cut out for them. Mandel spoke about this with Deadline after the season, as it related to his thought process going in and where he wanted to take things.
I think Armando and I speak a lot of the same language in terms of comedy, but I think we come at it in just different ways. I’ll go even a couple of steps further than that. I really started thinking about that the season would end with her losing, and how she was going to lose, and losing to Montez, and that I wanted to see her get on that helicopter sort of Nixon style and take off. So that idea and those images were really the stuff that I started with. So, when I was first given the job, I was simply presented with it’s a tie at the end of Season 4 – Do what you’re going to do. That’s the stuff I came up with as part of what I thought the season would be.
And here’s where we circle back and say this: Veep was really great this season, thanks in large part to a two-pronged story that followed Selina Meyer and her staff’s quest to lock down the election through various backchannels and favor trading in Washington, as well as a second story about Jonah heading off to New Hampshire for a Congressional run. Separating the two stories out allowed the show to narrow its focus on each of them. It’s how we were able to get a deeper look at just how soulless Selina can be in her pursuit of power (the hospital scene, oh my God), and get a newer, more fully formed version of America’s New Greatest Comedy Team, Jonah (Timothy Simons) and Richard (Sam Richardson) (if Veep ever gets around to making a spinoff, they could do a lot worse than Jonah and Richard doing literally anything together). And both plots culminated in a kind of sad, satisfying-but-unsatisfying finale that flipped the chess board over so they could reset it to follow Selina’s post-presidential life. It was pretty remarkable, really, the way Mandel and company took a huge swing like that in their first at-bat and still connected.
But most importantly, it was still funny, and in the way Veep has always been funny. It still had that mix of laser-sharp political satire (the Nixon thing with the helicopter, the Jimmy-Carter-esque situation with the Tibetan freedom announcement getting credited to her successor), pure comedy like the episode in which Selina’s daughter’s documentary was revealed (Tony Hale is a genius), and the type of cussing that displays such a mastery of the form that it borders on art. I mean…
That’s just a great piece of business.
All of which, really, is kind of exceptional if you think about it. Yes, the show had the luxury of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the rest of the cast, a group that could probably make reading a Five Guys menu funnier than at least a few of the sitcoms on television. But still, comedy is hard, so doing it under these circumstances, with the shadow of a former creator hanging over you and questions from fans about how all these new voices might affect the show, is really an achievement. It turns out the show was never that imperiled rudderless vessel I mentioned earlier. It’s an unsinkable speedboat filled with people firing horribly hurtful profanity at each other. Which is, in this case, a pretty good thing.