'VEEP' Draws To A Close, Its Freewheeling Cynicism Still A Delight

May 8, 2019
Originally published on May 10, 2019 11:12 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Sunday night sees the end of the seventh and final season of "Veep," the acclaimed HBO political satirical series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a politician. She's won an acting Emmy for each of the show's preceding six seasons. Our critic-at-large John Powers doesn't know whether she'll win number seven, but he says "Veep" has been a strangely sunny show about the darkness of politics.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: As "Game Of Thrones" builds to the final showdown with the evil Queen Cersei Lannister, it seems only fair to tip our hats to HBO's other great, power-hungry woman. I'm referring, of course, to Selina Meyer from "Veep," the hilariously scabrous political satire that comes to an end this Sunday. Played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the inept, foul-mouthed and boundlessly selfish Selina is surely the most groundbreakingly reprehensible heroine ever to front an American TV comedy, which may be why she's so much fun to watch.

To be honest, I didn't like "Veep" at first when it was about Selina's powerlessness as vice president. But in its second season, Selina began to get a sniff of power. Eventually, she'd wind up president, albeit briefly, and the show suddenly kicked into gear. It's still roaring along in Season 7, which finds Selina jetting from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina as she seeks the presidency yet again.

Now, "Veep" has never been interested in issues or the party side of politics. Selina has not even been identified as a Democrat or Republican. And the show tweaks everyone - evangelicals, knee-jerk liberals, Muslim bashers, PC lesbians, anti-vaxxers. It says that doing politics, especially inside the Beltway, is basically an unholy cross between living in a barnyard and going to high school. The people it attracts are horrible or become so in order to get ahead. Everybody is unprincipled, except for the dumb ones.

Of course, it's tricky for a political satire to have sharp teeth when it avoids ideology in real-life figures. You never hear the name Trump, for example, or Bernie. Still, the current season has done a witty job of folding in themes that feel relevant, be it the media trumpeting mere rumors about candidates, Selina becoming the beneficiary of foreign interference in the elections or the repellant Congressman Jonah Ryan, played by Timothy Simons, spawning a #NotMe movement of women who feel violated by his claims to have dated them. Here, Selina and her campaign team try to figure out how to win the vote of less educated white voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) All right. Then we're going to have to find a way with non-college-educated whites. Like, what appeals to them? OK, fine. What appeals to them? What do they want?

GARY COLE: (As Kent Davison) Well, my polling shows their main wants are jobs, education and an adequate safety net...

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) OK. I can speak to that.

COLE: (As Kent Davison) ...I'm not finished, ma'am - to be denied to African Americans.

TONY HALE: (As Gary Walsh) My video could help, actually.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No. Listen. We have to find a way to say those things without actually saying them.

REID SCOTT: (As Dan Egan) Like a dog whistle.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yes, exactly.

SCOTT: (As Dan Egan) OK. Know what? You could talk about charter schools, mention something...

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Come on. That's like a dog whisper.

BRIAN HUSKEY: (As Leon West) You could reject an endorsement from a pro-Confederacy group.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) That's like a dog exploding space shuttle, you know? I need it - something loud - not too loud, like...

COLE: (As Kent Davison) Dog chainsaw.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No, that's too droney (ph).

CLEA DUVALL: (As Marjorie Palmiotti) A dog snowmobile.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Why would I know what that even sounds like? I mean, seriously.

DUVALL: (As Marjorie Palmiotti) I'm sorry, ma'am. Sorry.

KEVIN DUNN: (As Ben Cafferty) A dog leaf blower.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah.

COLE: (As Kent Davison) That's right.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I like that.

POWERS: As this clip suggests, one of "Veep's" pleasures has always been its own pleasure in language. Such verbal playfulness extends to the obscene, as the show boasts the most gleefully inventive profanity since the heyday of "Deadwood's" Al Swearengen, the very Shakespeare of foul language.

Nobody on "Veep" swears harder than Selina, who incarnates our present-day image of the politician as a spoiled, narcissistic self-promoter who believes in nothing except winning power simply to have it. Insecure and driven, she'll cheerfully throw her own daughter's fiancee under the bus. She's ignorant of everything from the Constitution to the ideals she's supposed to be espousing. Her one worthy achievement - helping free Tibet - only matters to her because it can be used to let her run for president again.

Selina could easily come off as depressingly dark, but there's a reason Louis-Dreyfus has surpassed Lucille Ball as television's most honored comic actress. Bursting with comic charisma, she flings herself into this juicy role with an amoral delight that's strangely upbeat, if not infectious. Besides, Selina's no worse than everyone around her - preening womanizers; backstabbing senators; corrupt lobbyists; faux-enlightened Aspen donors who got rich ripping off hip-hop musicians; and even her own ex-husband, a philandering real estate crook.

Selina is enabled by staffers who either fawn over her, like her dim personal aide Gary - that's Tony Hale - or, more often, think she's a bleeping moron, like her hustling chief of staff, played by Anna Chlumsky. Seeing their boss as a meal ticket and a step up the ladder, they don't believe in anything, either. Such freewheeling cynicism makes it tempting to call "Veep" the farcical doppelganger of "Game Of Thrones," yet this isn't quite accurate, for despite its Hobbesian war of all against all, "Game Of Thrones" gives us genuine heroes. This isn't true of "Veep," a live-action cartoon in which everyone is either a fool, a knave or a monster. Nobody gets off scot-free, including the audience. We hope you enjoy watching these pathetic, nasty creatures, the show says with a cheery grin. You let them run your country.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Veep," which ends its seventh season run on Sunday. Friday on FRESH AIR, we'll feature interviews from our archives with two stars of "Veep," Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll examine some of the unanswered questions about Donald Trump's relationship with Deutsche Bank. Our guest will be David Enrich of The New York Times, who's investigated how and why the bank kept loaning Trump money even after he defaulted on tens of millions in loans. Trump has sued to prevent the bank from releasing his financial records to two congressional committees that have subpoenaed them. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "WELCOME HOTEL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.