One reason HBO’s “Veep” remains so good at the relatively advanced age of five seasons (which is a long time for a cable comedy) is that it deals strictly in its own absurdity, instead of helping itself to the mess we’ve made of real-world politics. This is an especially admirable trait in a year like 2016, when all anyone wants to satirize is the current presidential campaign, particularly as it relates to Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
But “Veep,” which returns Sunday night, remains a refreshingly Trump-free, Hillary-free, Bernie-free universe. It’s probably the only Washington-centric comedy on television that sees no need to partake in the actual madness because it has been so exceptional at making its own hay, sending up Beltway culture in a manner that cuts more deeply than any halfway-funny “Saturday Night Live” sketch or “Daily Show” bit.
“Veep’s” alternate America is currently stuck in an electoral college nightmare: Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the vainglorious vice president who, to everyone’s surprise, was sworn in as president during an election year, now finds herself tied with her opponent in electoral vote tallies — dead-even and on the verge of becoming history’s ultimate asterisk. “My bowling coach used to say a tie was like kissing your sister,” offers Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), Meyer’s ever-present, sycophantic bagman.
To which the leader of the free world responds with one of her stunningly vulgar quips, dirty enough to make LBJ blush in his grave and too much to print in the newspaper. (I tried.) “Veep’s” foul mouth is one of its strongest assets.
At her core, Selina knows she’s in trouble — an underqualified commander-in-chief who is surrounded by nincompoops. Her key to survival is to never admit defeat in the face of constant humiliation and cluelessness. She simply will not let the facts of her life intrude on her ambition, a nuance that Louis-Dreyfus has polished to perfection, turning a reprehensibly cynical and calculating woman into someone for whom we wince, ache and even secretly cheer on. I understand the temptation to insert a Hillary Clinton quip right here, but I won’t, because I admire “Veep’s” ability to make us forget about all that.
In the first four new episodes, “Veep” seems intent on prolonging Selina’s anxieties, as well as her deeply narcissistic definition of misery. A stress pimple develops on her cheek just as she appears on live TV assuring the nation that this electoral mess will somehow sort itself out and, until then, they can count on her as their president.
As the stock market immediately swoons from uncertainty, a glimmer of hope presents itself in a possible recount in Nevada. Team Meyer dispatches the troops to Carson City, led by Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) and the Tweedle-Dee and -Dum of Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) and Richard Splett (Sam Richardson). The president also sends in a supposed heavy-hitter, played by Martin Mull, whose reputation and inappropriate asides date back to the Nixon administration.
While her people petition for a statewide recount, Selina rounds up a group of powerful Wall Street executives to quell worries about the economy. There she finds a new plaything (“Mad Men’s” John Slattery) to distract her, offering him a “tour” of the White House residence. All this while, first daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) has decided to make a thesis documentary about life inside her mother’s administration, a project that can’t possibly end well.
“Veep’s” writers and cast have in some ways pushed the show as far as it can go. Selina obviously can’t cut it in the White House and there is a constitutional path for her fate to be decided in Congress; know-it-all viewers have speculated that Selina’s running mate (Hugh Laurie) will wind up in the Oval Office and she’ll have to return to playing second fiddle. It’s where she and her staff belong, but until we get there, it could be wickedly entertaining to watch her fantasies fall apart.
“Veep” works because it is a compact ensemble comedy, filled with the sort of overheard details and wonk verisimilitude that has a way of making the show seem just real enough, even when it has played coy about whether its lead character is a Democrat or a Republican. In that way, it stands far apart from much of what passes for political comedy these days. With six months to go before the election, we’ve been inundated with easy jokes and countless Trump impressions, especially on late-night TV. Even children have figured out that if you say “yooooge” in a roomful of grown-ups, you’ll get a couple of obligatory laughs.
What’s most striking about satire in this prolonged election cycle is its apparent inability to make a dent in popular opinion. Somewhere along the way, the jokes stopped being funny — not that they were all that funny to begin with. The humor feels strained. You can see them all (Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, Kate McKinnon) straining to stay ahead of the very nonsense they helped create. The other day I read about a group of college students who had written a “Hamilton” musical parody about Jeb Bush. Could any idea sound less funny and more like a homework assignment?
Even in her opening monologue while hosting SNL last week, Louis-Dreyfus began a Trump joke but didn’t bother to finish it. It’s become that obvious; all the air has been sucked out of political humor. However fictional, “Veep” still offers hope that there is something inherently twisted and humorous about Washington, and not in the Capitol Steps and Gridiron Dinner ways of yore. A vote for Selina is a vote for the future of satire.
Veep (30 minutes) returns Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.