‘Veep’ Isn’t About the First Female President (Thank God)
Imagine an original comedy about The First Woman President. Between media pressure (“Is she powerful enough?”) and network notes (“Is she relatable enough?”) and focus group testing (“She should be hotter, but not like, too hot?”) it would likely endure as much tweaking, flattening and deadening as the Clinton campaign put into Hillary’s announcement video (Clinton 2016!). Every scene would be plagued by questions like, “Do we really want to imply that this is how The First Female President would behave in the War Room?” or “But can we really let The First Woman President refuse to pardon both turkeys just because she’s on her period?” Every plot point would seem like an accusation or prediction, every casting choice would Say Something, every line would be ringed with stupid boring significance. For all this well-considered work, it could only hope to be as funny as the failed Geena Davis drama Commander-in-Chief, which is to say, sliding up and down a scale of “kind of funny by accident” to “maybe it was a bad idea to have women be a gender; we could all quit and become vestal virgins.”
“We’re making history, we’re the first woman president! Well, I am, Michael, you’re not!” Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) giddily tells a well-wisher at the joint chief’s assembly, but blessedly Veep hasn’t become a show about The First Woman President. It’s still about the Selina Meyer we already know and kind of love, or at least laugh at and properly fear as a political idea. She’s narcissistic and crazy foul-mouthed; competitive and short-sighted and mean. She’s still completely unrelatable (poor, poor First Daughter Catherine), but now terrifyingly powerful. She also remains really, really hot, but that can be written off as a by-product of being played by perfect human specimen Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Selina came by the White House much the same way Francis Underwood did (and Geena Davis’s President Mackenzie Allen, just for the record) — unelected, ascending after a president’s resignation. There are valid fears about transitioning a comedic character from having minimal, laughable authority to being leader of the free world. Is it still hysterical that Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) is always out of the loop, when the loop means the fate of our nation? Are Kent’s (Gary Cole) tautological aphorisms just as joyously meaningless when they’re said in the Oval Office? Is it entertaining that Gary (Tony Hale) lets his obsession with Selina override all other considerations when he has the White House purse strings in his hot little hands? Well, yeah. It’s great.
The change gives the characters a new, amped up energy. It even allows President Meyer a few glimmers of reassuring competence before putting her perfectly-heeled foot back in her mouth. Mike is a famous press secretary now and loving it, Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is left to deal with Selina’s tattered campaign, Gary lacks security clearance and is losing unfettered access to his beloved Selina, and Jonah (Timothy Simons) has a whole new Veep’s office to haunt with his hilariously ghoulish presence. Last season Selina was running for president — and she still is, in her minimal free time — but making her president dispenses with much of the concern about gender and optics and horse-race discussions. Campaigns are funny, but they are necessarily one-note. Gotta get that one note out, make sure the voters understand your one note. But dealing with missing hikers and Greek oil tank crashes and historic speeches about the future whatever puts the show back at a comfortable, breakneck speed. Veep has always run at a pace where any small mistake could become huge and any huge mistake can be quickly forgotten as the next giant blunder comes crashing down (remember the entire staff shit-talking a doofy reporter into his own microphone last season? No? Neither does anyone else). Now the stakes and mistakes are even bigger. There’s no time for quibbles about Selina’s folksiness when there’s world peace to not achieve.
And there’s definitely no time to wring hands about being The First Woman President. Having watched the first four episodes, I can (spoiler alert) assure you that there is no early episode belaboring the media’s obsession with The First Woman President, or soliloquy on the Unusual Pressures that First Woman President Meyers faces. There are fun additions, like a small army of faceless young women eager to work under President Meyers, whom the staff, including Reid Scott’s Dan Egan and Mike, cannot tell apart (“You big lady racist,” Zak Orth’s Communications Director tells Mike). There are some solid gender jokes (“I’m used to dealing with angry, aggressive, dysfunctional men,” Selina tells her chief of staff, Ben (Kevin Dunn), “i.e. men,” and Kent calls her negotiations “masterly, or mistressly, whichever’s not offensive”). And there is a looming sexual harassment scandal, thanks to the new Vice President’s handsy chief of staff, Teddy (Patton Oswalt), who can’t keep his hands of Jonad’s gonads. None of this bogs the show down or gets in the way of the epic, gender-neutral screw-ups the Veep team excels at. “Cause I’m the president, see? Everything’s my fault now.” Selina says happily, and everything is what she’s dealing with. Bring it all on.