With Selina as POTUS, 'Veep' is (again) TV's best political satire

Could this be the shortest presidency in American history?

Just when I had finally started getting comfortable with the idea of Frank Underwood in the White House, here comes Selina Meyer in Season 4 of "Veep" as president of the United States.

And guess what she's doing in one of the early episodes this month? She's negotiating with Iran. And she gets a deal, too. Just as the real president reached the outline of one last week.

Hillary Clinton's email troubles? Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has been there, done that. She had them in Season 1.

As viewers and citizens, we are nothing short of blessed to have art and life meet this way in two of the most daring and astute political series on American television. And for all the times I and other critics have used adjectives like "landmark" and "groundbreaking" to describe Netflix's "House of Cards," it feels these days as though "Veep" is the more culturally significant of these two Maryland-made shows.

Part of that is the result of what the TV landscape looks like in 2015. With Jon Stewart leaving "The Daily Show" in the Twitter-challenged hands of Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert already departed from "The Colbert Report," the nicest thing one can say about the state of political satire on television is that it's in transition.

But even with Stewart, Colbert or "Saturday Night Live" at the top of their games, there has been nothing on TV in recent years to compare in breadth or depth with the withering critique of Washington politics rendered by creator and showrunner Armando Iannucci in HBO's "Veep." And Season 4, which starts April 12, looks better than ever, with the addition of cast members such as Hugh Laurie ("House M.D.") and a higher tightrope than ever for Selina to walk.

Selina's move to Pennsylvania Avenue creates a new dramatic dynamic for almost everyone around her this season, Iannucci said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last week.

"It's a whole new situation, in that everybody on her staff is suddenly very important and now has staff under them," he says. "They now work for the president of the United States and are getting a kick out of just saying it. People like Mike, the press spokesman (Matt Walsh), have become famous."

One of the ways the aging flack reacts to his newfound fame is by dyeing his droopy mustache a ridiculous-looking reddish-orange.

"He looks like Yosemite Sam," one commenter says with pitch-perfect Iannucci snark.

"In terms of the writing for this season, I said to the writers, 'Change her name in the script to President Meyer, because people need to speak differently to her now — and, therefore, we need to write these people speaking differently to her," Iannucci explains. "Calling her President Meyer in the script instead of Selina, as we had, will help assist with that."

That newfound respect for Selina is one of the major differences in tone during the first four episodes that were made available for screening. But fear not, this being a world where political fortunes can rise and fall on a well or poorly chosen phrase during a live cable talk show: Respect is fleeting.

"Obviously, as the season goes on, all that breaks down as people just want to survive," Iannucci says. "But that move into the White House does initially change all of them, and we wanted to explore the humor in that."

Watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus, TV's greatest comedy actress, articulate the changes to Selina through her performance is one of the tastiest treats of the new season. There's a reason the onetime "Seinfeld" co-star keeps winning all those Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards for "Veep."

"She's gotten tougher," Iannucci says of Selina. "She's realized that in order to progress, she has to be a little more ruthless. She has to make decisions that she might find difficult or unpleasant. But if she shirks them, she won't advance."

Iannucci and his team wisely give Louis-Dreyfus all the words and space she needs to personify the contradictions of politics and power in her performance.

"I think she likes to believe that she's preserved her idealism and integrity," Iannucci says of Selina. "But I think she needs to be reminded why she went into politics in the first place. People, when they're in politics for a long time, it becomes all they know. So, you ask them what they actually believe in, and they become confused. They have to think for a while before they can answer. So there's an element of that in Season 4."

Similar to President Barack Obama and his Affordable Care Act, President Meyer also has centerpiece legislation that she hopes will define her legacy: the Families First Act. It seems expensive, and the details are vague, but like the politically ubiquitous expression "hardworking middle-class families," it sounds good.

Iannucci says the Families First Act gives his team a window for viewers to see how "a president deals with her or his Congress."

"The lobby industry looms very large later in the season," he adds. "You know what Bismarck said, about the two things you don't want to see being made are law and sausages? Well, that's part of the season, too, getting to see how laws are actually made and the kind of degradations you have to go through to get just one person's vote. ... There are some insights and fun in that."

Some of the singular insights found in "Veep" are surely the result of the outsider status that Iannucci and several key members of his creative team enjoy as citizens of the United Kingdom. They see U.S. politics from a different angle, and they have not undergone the socialization to American mythology that most U.S. artists have.

"It's not for to me to offer solutions in my work," the Glasgow-born and Oxford-educated producer says. "I'm just there to kind of illustrate how I perceive the political needs of the moment. And it's up to other people to then, if they feel like it, act on that and say, 'OK, how can we do something differently, how can we improve this, or how can we sort that out? ... I can't offer solutions. I'm not a citizen."

But he does have opinions about how we got here.

"The whole Constitution is practically based on the three different sides talking to one another — the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate," he says. "The moment somebody says, 'We're not going to speak to you,' the whole thing grinds to a halt. And that's the situation as I find it."

Political insights like that — the stuff of Sunday morning talk shows — are one thing. A prime-time series that makes you laugh is usually something altogether different. "Veep" manages to make you smile and think.

This scene made me laugh out loud:

Selina is scheduled to deliver her first major address to Congress since taking over from President Hughes at the end of last season. She is hoping to launch and drum up support for the Families First Act.

But first she has to find a budget cut to also announce in the speech — a cut that will pay for her proposal.

Surprisingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff hand her what she thinks is a gift by informing her of a $50 billion submarine program made obsolete by new technology. She can't believe her good fortune.

But just as she's about to enter the House Chamber to make the speech, a congressman and three other very angry men, who self-identify as the "military-industrial complex," confront Selina's senior staffers backstage. And in an aria of profanity and insult, they catalog the jobs that will be lost in all the states of all the congressmen who will ultimately decide the fate of Selina's bill.

The president's aides scramble madly to inform her of their miscalculation — and change the script of her speech before it is loaded into the TelePrompter and read to Congress and the world.

This is Armando Iannucci's Washington, where the most confidently laid political schemes seem to go awry, in large part because the politicians are mostly self-absorbed, entitled and dissembling — and never as clever as they think they are.

But it's not all their fault. They are relentlessly under assault by tremendously rich and powerful interests that in many cases really do have the power to determine whether they will be re-elected.

And the whole carnival is covered by a dazed and confused media full of reporters who are just as self-absorbed, entitled and dissembling as the politicians. And neither the politicians nor the media understand the digital technology that has exploded all notions of reflection, due deliberation and news cycles measured in anything beyond seconds.

"I'm not saying Washington is full of crooks and criminals, or the public is stupid," Iannucci says. "I'm showing you the elements where I think government has ground to a halt, the elements where I think you get the disconnect between what the public wants and what the politicians do. To me, that's a really interesting area to explore."

And no one in television does it better.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

Season 4 of "Veep" premieres at 10:30 p.m. April 12 on HBO.

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