One of the most difficult things a sitcom can do is to monkey with its basic premise, scattering characters here and there, while retaining its quality (and its audience). This usually happens with shows whose casts are aging — when a series set during high school must graduate its class to college, for example — and the results are frequently dire, or at the least, second-rate. Not so with Veep, whose sixth season premieres Sunday on HBO.
“This is my second act!” exults Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer in one of the new season’s episodes. It’s an exultation she experiences all too rarely these days. Since serving less than a year as president and being defeated in the presidential race, Selina is struggling to keep herself in the game. The new season finds her setting up shop in a post-presidential office in the South Bronx — to emulate a similar of-the-people gesture made by Bill Clinton, but mostly because it’s one of the few places in New York City she can afford. She’s trying to launch a new initiative to tackle “adult literacy and AIDS” that isn’t quite focused enough to attract headlines. She’s hoping to snag donors to set up a Selina Meyer Presidential Library, but so far, she’s getting turn-downs from the Ivy League colleges.
Selina still has the ever-loyal Gary (Tony Hale) by her side, but her former staff has diffused into the political-media ether in the wake of Meyers’s presidential election defeat. Anna Chlumsky’s Amy, for example, is using her chief of staff skills to run a gubernatorial campaign in Nevada, while her former director of communications Dan Reid (Reid Scott) is deploying his telegenic looks as a new co-host on CBS This Morning. (Margaret Colin is superb, in the quick glimpses I’ve seen, as Dan’s acerbic co-host.)
Veep and Louis-Dreyfus like nothing more than to put Selina in a low position and force her to claw her way back to the top — or at least try her plucky, cynical best to maintain a minimum of dignity.
But I know what you want to know: Yes, that deluded beanpole Jonah (Timothy Simons) is as self-destructively arrogant as ever, and is the butt of much of Veep’s most ferocious, profane-insult humor. And yes, there is further, funny fallout from last season’s little master stroke of plotting, when first daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) inherited her grandmother’s money, and Selina was excluded.
Because Veep is about politics, there were any number of ways to keep Selina active with her former colleagues — just look at the way politicians in real life leave office but remain in the public eye, whether as TV talking heads (Rick Santorum, CNN contributor) or as humanitarians (Bill Clinton and his Clinton Foundation). But the show never takes any obvious route to its laughs. It avoids, in the three episodes HBO made available for review, any facile fictional equivalents of a Donald Trump in the Veep universe. It has taken all my willpower to refrain from quoting any jokes or punchlines. You’ll have to watch to see the full glorious yet ignominious scale of Selina Meyers’s second act.
Veep airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.
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