Did “Veep” Just Jump the Shark?

{NOTE: This post contains spoilers for episodes 9 and 10 of season three of Veep.}

Antiheroes are for 23-year-olds. Now that I’m in my thirties, I need at the very least not to hate the protagonist. I don’t have to like him, but I can’t actively root for his humiliation.

This feeling—which we might call “creeping prudishness”—explains why I liked The Lego Movie but can take or leave The Godfather. (A statement which may well lose me some dear, old friends.)

This also explains why tonight, with the airing of the final two episodes of season three, VEEP ceased its reign as the best comedy on TV.

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Until tonight’s episodes, Veep was akin to a blue rendition of The Office—i.e., a workplace comedy with a deluded narcissist at the center of a cast of wacky characters. In these shows, the joy and the humor come in watching interesting people be interesting. The characters are where it’s at.

Plot matters only insofar as its places our characters into stressful situations, which provide them a stage on which to flaunt and strut their oddities and interesting points-of-view. Plot serves the characters, not vice versa.

And so we have arrived at Reason #1 why Veep may have just jumped the shark:

1. Veep is making too much happen. This isn’t a Tom Clancy novel.

Improvisers can attest: a little premise can go a long way. The opening minute of an improv scene contains all you need to sustain a 30-minute show. Go down, dig down, dig deep. (Advanced improvisers can yank half-an-hour out of the opening seconds of a scene.)

Tonight, Veep abandoned its Emmy-winning moorings—as a curated collection of idiosyncrasies, behind-the-scenes lingo, and creative insults—in favor of making a bunch of shit happen.

To wit: In this evening’s two episodes, Selina went from losing a presidential primary to battling in another primary to being elevated to President on an unprecedented resignation to going back to the campaign to losing another primary and then going back to DC for a terrible television speech and on into the Oval Office.

God yes, that sentence bored me too.

And it highlights a truism I think more TV show runners might well heed: You’re in the business of fun and games. Give us more. Shovel that sweet yummy comedy down our gaping maws! We want, we want! We’ll only eat so many plot vegetables before we clam up and throw a fit.

Especially with only 10 episodes per season! OK sure yes, if you had to do 20+ episodes, yes, you could be forgiven for cramming in too much plot. (Which is why Parks & Rec’s time jump at the end of its most recent season was so narratively clever: let’s skip past all the exposition and just see our loved characters doing their thing.)

But here is something critical: our beloved chacters’ “things” can’t turn sour. Which is why I’m so bothered by the second problem:

2. Almost everyone on Veep is awful. 

The fun and games turned mean tonight.

For example, in the penultimate episode (“Crate”), whipping boy Jonah is at home with his mother, trying to use her connections to land him a plumb political job. When she fails, Jonah says to her, “Mom! You are so annoying! How do you not just punch yourself in the face?” I’m an admitted mama’s boy, and perhaps I’m a bit sensitive on this, but it just struck me as charmless.

But that’s a minor offense compared to minutes later when, just after the Selina gets publicly busted for some terrible things she said “off the record,” she screams “Losers!” into the faces of her staffers.

Selina Meyer, the Veep, has become a terrible bitch. And with scant few exceptions, everyone around Selina seems nasty and shallow.

(Amy Brookheimer as the Veep’s campaign manager is a friendly face in a sea of piranhas. And Mike McClintock, the press secretary played with startling pathos by UCB godhead Matt Walsh, was the only character for whom I rooted tonight. (I rooted for him to leave Selina and retire to a little duck farm in Connecticut.))

Here’s a quick analogy that might help explain my bewilderment:

I watched the first few seasons of MTV’s The Real World back in the early 1990s—about 20 years ago. Then I stopped watching until a couple of years ago, when I caught a few episodes of the newer version. WHAT THE HELL?! This show, which was once on the vanguard of TV for its willingness to stick actual real (read: unattractive) humans into a house and film them 24-hours-per-day, had devolved into a collection of entitled aspiring supermodels and Abercrombie abdominal statues fucking each other in hot tubs.

Which one of these gorgeous millennials was I supposed to relate with?

I understand and am existentially bothered by how much I sound like my grandfather right now. But still, Veep has to make the V.P. likable once again.

For the first two seasons, her narcissism and meanness was hedged by her self-delusion and the constant reminders that she wasn’t the superstar she imagined herself to be. (“Sue, did the President call?” “No, ma’am.”) We forgave her for being occasionally vain or mean because she did it with a wry, I’m-one-of-you smile. She was snapping towels in the locker room, and she was doing it better than anyone.

In fact, for the first two seasons (and most of the third season) Veep operated under what humor academics call the “benign violation theory of humor“—wherein something is funny if it’s perceived as a violation of a societal norm that is benign, i.e., not ultimately harmful to anyone. Even the most biting insults—(“What are you lookin’ at, Jolly Green Jizzface?”) were judgment-proof because there was a sense that nobody was being actually hurt. But now Gary’s got a bloody nose and a gimpy shoulder; while Dan Egan has immediately returned to being a soulless ghoul.

Even better, Selina’s lash-outs usually ended up boomeranging and hitting her square in the ego. As when, in the series’ first episode, she makes a grand entrance into a meeting in which she’s expecting to be greeted by dozens of adoring congresspeople, only to be greeted by an almost empty ballroom. That moment—the pie-in-her-face clown-with-a-heart-of-gold getting her benign comeuppance—has been replaced by Voldemort with a page boy haircut and an icy detachment from reality.

Which brings me to a narrative recommendation:

Make Selina Vice President again, somehow.

But now she’s the President of the United States! And along with her old job title, the new Prez may have lost her vulnerability. When the vulnerability goes, the guffaw-worthy humor is not far behind.

The appeal of this show was watching a scrappy, power-hungry Julia Louis-Dreyfus try to navigate her rag-tag band of staffers through various “big moments.” There was an underdog feel to this show. And Americans, thank goodness, have a salivating adoration of the underdog.

But we can’t root for the underdog once she turns into another vindictive alpha.

If she’s President, she’s in complete charge. There’s simply no time for the leader of the free world to display the crippling self-doubt that fueled so much of the comedy of this show. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s far less fun in the Oval Office than in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

I’m thankful that this season ended when it did, however. Because now, with some time to think and breathe, the show’s writers can hopefully steer Selina, et al., back on course. Get them scheming and cursing and butting heads again. Don’t worry for a moment about Selina’s “season-long emotional arc in Season Four” or anything so grand.

Get back to what you do better than just about anyone: Snappy dialogue, believable and interesting characters, and a lot of inside-the-Beltway dish.


 

With Veep de-throned as Best Comedy on TV Right Now, I’m thrilled to announce that none other than Broad City has taken the Oath of Office and shall remain in office at least until John Mulaney’s sitcom shows up in the fall. 

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