Any series with our nation’s greatest working comic actor at its helm can’t exactly claim a handicap. Still, the news that Veep creator Armando Iannucci was stepping away from the show inspired understandable trepidation when it broke last spring. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a titan, with the seven Emmys to prove it, but her performance depends on “Axis of Dick”–level material.
Iannucci passed the baton to David Mandel, a comedy writer whose CV boasts stints on Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show was never going to feel leaderless, or worse yet, test out edgeless anarchy. Still, Iannucci’s comedy feels more voice-driven than most: acid-tongued, quippy, and deliciously profane (just ask Peter Capaldi). British political commentary doesn’t always map seamlessly onto the American system — see: House of Cards — but Iannucci proved fluent in the incompetencies of both, pivoting from The Thick of It to Veep with a glorious mashup in between. Thing is, voice-driven comedies tend to go slightly off the rails when the voice goes silent.
Fortunately, Veep’s edge has stayed razor-sharp. The fifth-season finale, definitely one of the top-two most anticipated episodes airing on HBO this Sunday, caps off a pitch-perfect run for the show. Veep spent last year on the campaign trail, a process that threatened to deliver a definitive answer to Veep’s central question of whether a minor detail like reality could get between Selina Meyer’s ego and the highest office in the land. This year, the show trapped its protagonist in a miniaturized and particularly painful version of the holding pattern that is her entire career. The result brings out the worst in everyone, and the best in Veep’s barb-laden portrait of a crisis team perpetually unprepared for literally any crisis. To borrow a stale political term, the show has doubled down on its strengths: Louis-Dreyfus’s slowly crumbling rictus and the methodical puncturing of the illusion that “government” and “authority” are in any way related.
Thanks to the electoral college tie that ended Season 4, Selina will have spent five excruciating hours of television in a more precarious political position than ever. It’s a brilliant arrangement; even though Selina is, technically, president of the United States, she still has the tantalizing proximity to, yet total separation from, true power that drives the comedy of the show. Selina’s thirst for the presidency was the only reason she deigned to take Veep’s titular office in the first place, and now she’s stuck in limbo. The stakes — for Selina’s ego and the country she’s somehow in charge of — have earned a healthy late-series boost. But she’s unable to do anything about it: It’s all the indignity of the vice presidency combined with all the culpability of the Oval Office.
Which is fitting: Mandel’s reign as showrunner has produced a high by going deep on our worst president ever. (This approach reaches its apotheosis in “Mother,” an instant Emmy reel that uses the passing of Selina’s disapproving, WASPish mother to unveil the root cause of her complex.) Selina Meyer is a vacuous, vindictive, unprincipled nightmare-person. Her desire for the presidency is so naked, so blatantly driven by an unadulterated need for adoration — from her staff, from her family, from the constituents she hates and depends on. And yet we can’t help but feel for her, as we always do when fiction reflects our worst selves back at us. Just imagine your father pointing out the president and saying, “People might not like Nixon, but at least they respect him — and that’s you, Peanut!” (That last line comes from the terrible-documentary-style “Kissing Your Sister,” in which Selina watches helplessly as her running mate schemes to be elected in her place. An ancillary theme of the season: our electoral bylaws are arbitrary, dumb, and easily manipulated.)
So Iannucci’s absence hasn’t interfered with Veep’s status as the most effective Washington hit job in comedy. (The continued involvement of longtime writers like Georgia Pritchett, Sean Gray, and Will “Not That One” Smith surely helped with the transition.) That’s thanks to Mandel, and to JLD, but also the fact that the competition this year has been especially lacking: The Daily Show still hasn’t recovered from a changing of the guard; Saturday Night Live drowned its credibility in self-tanner; the rest of late night (Samantha Bee excepted) gets an A for effort and a gentleman’s C for effectiveness.
Unlike those shows, Veep’s comedy is deliberately removed from the churn of real-life lawmaking, and its characters are pointedly stripped of partisan affiliation, leaving only an ideological flexibility best described as “gymnastic” in its place. Anyone insane enough to subject themselves to the live-action cartoon of the United States political process, the show suggests, suffers from the same complex. Veep is a series-long study of the mental condition that is Being a Politician, an unholy combination of mania, delusion, and incurable narcissism. It may stumble into topicality, and held up against a contest that pits a notoriously tenacious woman against an egomaniac with an ever-expanding list of public screw-ups, it’s feeling particularly reality-adjacent. But Veep is ultimately timeless. As long as Washington keeps serving up material on a silver platter, Veep has the ammo to keep going.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.