Armando Iannucci is happy, he assures us, that he stopped making Veep when he did. The Scottish filmmaker left the show he created after its fourth season, in April 2015, citing the strain of commuting between Baltimore and London. A month later, Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy. “I’m so glad I don’t do Veep anymore because I don’t know how I’d respond to the situation in America now,” Iannucci said during a Q&A in Sydney in 2017. He confessed to IndieWire that he was “kind of relieved” to have handed Veep off to a new showrunner, David Mandel, just before the Trump era began. “What can you do and say that hasn’t already been said and done by him?” Iannucci asked. “Personally, I just find it difficult to be funny about him. I can only be frustrated and flabbergasted by him. Outraged.”
This might surprise those who love Veep for highlighting the same qualities that Iannucci finds so horrifying in the US president—compulsive lying; a cringing, childish need for approval; a lack of discernible ideology; cover-ups that are worse than the crimes—in order to mock the emptiness at their center. The “situation in America,” it seems, is in closer harmony than ever with the worldview of Veep’s main character, Vice President (and eventual president) Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The seventh and final season, which concluded in May, has a plotline that features foreign election interference, FBI investigations, nonprofit grifters, and a man at a political rally who punctuates any mention of a woman’s name by shouting, “Kill her!”
Because these things more or less happened in real life, the notion that the Trump era should also be the golden age of Veep has the ring of intuitive truth. There is so much to work with. If satire is like a fun-house mirror—something that skews but also reflects reality—a dark, absurd time should be the ideal conditions for dark, absurd comedy. But looking back at the show’s seven- season run, I find that I agree with Iannucci: After Trump’s election, something changed; the jokes just didn’t land quite right. In the beginning, Veep’s cynicism cut against the zeitgeist of the Obama years, but now it’s hard to see what else its brand of satire can show us.
Before Veep began filming in 2011, its writers and cast interviewed dozens of politicians—Al Gore, Joe Biden, John McCain, Amy Klobuchar, and Mitt Romney among them. But perhaps the most useful fact-finding mission took place in 2009, when Iannucci and his 22-year-old assistant managed to sneak into the offices of the State Department in Washington while researching his Iraq War satire, In the Loop. A journalist friend had directed him to walk up to the entry, flash his BBC pass, and bluff that he was there for a 12:30 meeting. Inside, when he was caught taking photos for his art department, Iannucci invoked “the 12:30” to explain himself—and once again, the ruse worked. “Yeah, it’s just down there,” said the State Department employee who had stopped him. Iannucci described the incident as “probably international espionage.”
Veep is the product of episodes like this—stories of the gaps and failures in the workings of the world’s largest government. “Washington is architecturally gorgeous…but you go inside and there are like four people in an office designed for one, sitting on dingy chairs eating their lunch at their desk,” writer Simon Blackwell told The Independent. “We wanted to show that side of American politics rather than the reverential West Wing version.” Former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, an executive producer on the show, summed up the city’s burnout culture this way: “Washington is not glamorous…. It is shabby, people are slobs, nobody cleans anything, detritus stays around for weeks if not months, and everyone dresses ten years behind the times.”
In the show’s research phase, Iannucci and his cast also collected insults with the reverent discernment of a sommelier. Cast members took young DC staffers out for drinks to absorb their affectations and unguarded shit talk. (“He might be my boss, but he’s a fucking idiot,” a Joe Lieberman staffer gossiped to Reid Scott, who plays Selina’s unctuous, ambitious communications director, Dan Egan.) Iannucci hired someone he referred to as a “swearing consultant” for his writing staff, and he did his own research on the cursing endemic to different executive departments. “The State Department doesn’t swear that much, but at the Pentagon they swear like dockers,” he said. “Really foul, unpleasant swearing.”
The portrait of Washington that emerges is thus made up almost entirely of minutiae: slights, mistakes, backbiting, gaffes. There are no lofty ideological debates; Selina’s party affiliation is unspecified, though Iannucci has called her a “soft centrist,” a deliciously hollow pavlova of a political identifier. Any private moral convictions she may have once held have been smoothed away by decades in public office, and all that remains is a quest for power, hamstrung by dysfunction. In the show’s third season, as Selina rehearses for a primary debate, she declares, “My position has always been clear on immigration”—and then stops to ask her aides to remind her what her position on immigration is. “As far as I’m concerned, America owes me an eight-year stay in the White House,” she riffs in an impromptu speechwriting session in the show’s final season. “And this time, I want a war.”
In the absence of some public-minded goal, Selina’s team runs on its collective lizard brain. At least twice, she hires or fires the wrong people because she’s misremembered their names—Leslie Kerr at the State Department for Leanne Carr, “that bitch from Energy,” and campaign manager Keith Quinn (Andy Daly) for a similarly blond, bespectacled political operative who ends up on a rival team—and then viciously chews out her staff for her own mistake. “It is not my job to know what Keith Quinn does or does not look like!” she shouts at her chief of staff, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), slamming her palms on a conference table.
At first, the beauty of Veep’s comedy of errors was its ability to puncture the Panglossian tone of the Obama era: It reminded us that many politicians, left and right, are narcissists working to preserve their own power, with varying levels of success. By having its characters act solely out of expediency and self-interest, Veep showed the absurdity of a political worldview that wouldn’t admit to either. Former officials cheerfully lobbying against the progressive legislation they created would be inconceivable in what Simon Blackwell called the “reverential West Wing version” of DC. But in Veep and in real life, it happened, and the officials turned lobbyists wound up back where they’d started: getting chewed out in the halls of Congress. (In Veep, the subject was the unpopular Families First bill; in real life, a former Obama intellectual-property expert, now the president of a software trade group, was criticized for tech-industry data mining.)
Veep’s basic building block is the gaffe, the smallest visible unit of political conflict. Selina has her high-stakes, awful fuck-ups—stealing private medical data, rigging elections, and, to clinch the presidential nomination, banning gay marriage—but most episodes hinge on petty mistakes, their significance inflated by the press and miffed allies. Selina upsets European diplomats with a louche comedic song performed at a charity dinner. She wears a pair of Louboutins that squeak like dog toys at her inaugural address. At a loss for words, she tells a serviceman, “Good morning, Marine. You have a nice face.”
Gaffes are the key to understanding why Veep lands differently in the Trump era. Selina is, in many ways, a Trump-like figure. She loves seeing pictures of herself and is a “giant misogynist,” according to showrunner Mandel. But there is one huge way in which she differs from Trump: Selina has not proved to be impervious to gaffes. Unlike scandals or crises, gaffes have no inherent significance; they require a certain amount of public buy-in to make them real. Gaffes are effectively a device embraced by politicians and certain segments of the media to fill broadcast minutes and make one’s opponents look stupid, based on the theory that a small error can usefully metonymize the flaws in the person as a whole.
Donald Trump misidentifying Apple CEO Tim Cook to his face as “Tim Apple” is a textbook gaffe. On Veep, a similar error would fill an entire episode; perhaps it would end Selina’s quid pro quo arrangement with Clovis, the smug, cultlike tech company she visits during her third presidential campaign, and in turn threaten a piece of legislation. But in real life, nothing much happened. Trump was mocked, as he usually is, and the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board—the group that brought Cook to the White House, co-chaired by Ivanka Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—went on issuing bland, toothless policy recommendations and setting up visits to Lockheed Martin plants.
Of course, gaffes do indicate something about a person—for Selina, they reveal a breathtakingly complete lack of interest in other people—but the humor of Veep is that, although every gaffe has consequences, no one changes. If anything, they get worse. Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), the gangly White House staffer turned presidential candidate who was once described as “Frankenstein’s monster, if his monster was made entirely of dead dicks,” sticks to his anti-vaxxer platform even after spreading chicken pox across central Pennsylvania. (In a brilliantly perverse arc, Jonah also marries his stepsister, who turns out to be a blood relative.) Political success, for the characters in Veep, is almost entirely a measure of one’s ability to avoid petty errors, hide them, or steer doggedly through the shitstorm they produce.
“Veep has never been a ripped-from-the-headlines show,” Scott told The Hollywood Reporter. “If anything, it’s been this weird crystal ball. We’d do something absolutely bonkers, and then two months later, it happens.” Veep’s comedy of errors developed at a time when the outcry surrounding gaffes could pass as a series of morality plays in miniature, case studies in politicians and their weaknesses. A newspaper reader in 2007 could be forgiven for thinking, for example, that Barack Obama hurt his chances with white working-class voters when he asked a group of them in Iowa, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately? See what they charge for arugula?” And the fact that he went on to win the Hawkeye State by eight percentage points in the Democratic primaries indicates the efficacy of “arugula-gate” in imparting its lesson about small-town American values.
The silliness of this idea—that anecdotes show you more about a person than what they actually do with power—was Veep’s fixation. Its standard punch line had the public unable to see the forest of its title character’s sociopathy for the trees of her myriad failed photo ops. (My favorite: Selina, recently infected with a stomach bug, arrives ashen-faced and hours late to a frozen-yogurt shop and chokes down a spoonful of room-temperature vanilla sludge; then she soils herself on the way back to her motorcade.) These days, the punch line doesn’t land because the underlying metonymy no longer works. We don’t need Trump calling a black supporter at a rally “my African American” to know he’s a racist, and analyzing the former as new evidence of the latter can feel futile.
Political satire is at its best when it digs into whatever the American ruling class is trying to hide from us—in Veep’s early years, the clashes of ego, the rage fits, the mix-ups, and the infighting beneath a veneer of decorum. The Trump administration isn’t concealing any of that; it’s right there on the surface, and there is nothing interesting or subversive about pointing it out. Satire needs a moderately stable system to mock, and when that system is in flux, perhaps satire itself doesn’t function nearly as well. Maybe that’s why political humor has either taken a journalistic turn (John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight) or become trenchantly activist (“Senator Says the Only Acceptable Way to Kill a Fetus Is With a Gun,” reads a Reductress headline published shortly after Alabama’s abortion ban).
In the show’s finale, after Selina wins the presidency by sacrificing her last atom of humanity, she sits in the Oval Office, alone. In Louis-Dreyfus’s virtuosic performance, we watch a cloud of forlorn lucidity crossing her face. Then she snaps out of it to call the Israeli prime minister about a Palestinian food riot. It’s not funny, just sad. Selina, in her private moments, feels the weight of her decisions, but she doesn’t change course. Discussing his decision to give Selina her prize—the presidency, at all costs—Mandel, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, asked, “Why is Selina Meyer in the year 2020 the only politician paying the price for being not a great person?”