Standing in a pile of construction rubble on a cold and dirty location set at the Lord Baltimore Hotel here in January, I didn't know what to expect from Season 3 of HBO's "Veep."
Everyone in the cast and crew, including star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, seemed to be suffering from a chest-busting virus that was signaled by the most awful-sounding cough. Grim doesn't start to describe the mood as they prepped for the filming of a scene featuring a make-believe employment conference.
Director Chris Addington suddenly found himself after a post-lunch conversation with Louis-Dreyfus confronted with the need for a serious rewrite of the scene he was about to shoot. After another intense conversation — this one on the phone with someone higher up the food chain — he started looking for a pen.
Full disclosure: When there was clearly none to be found, I gave him one of mine. There's a limit to what kind of misery a journalist can stand by and silently observe before stepping in and trying to relieve the pain. I'm only half-kidding.
But out of great suffering sometimes comes great art, and Season 3 of "Veep," which starts Sunday night on HBO, is easily the best yet from this Emmy Award-winning comedy series. I'm not saying it's necessarily art — whatever that is defined as these days. But when it comes to political satire, there is nothing like it — nor has there ever been anything like it — on American TV except for the short-lived "Tanner '88" from director Robert Altman and writer Garry Trudeau on HBO in 1988.
In fact, there is nothing in any genre even remotely as politically sophisticated and astute as "Veep" on television.
"House of Cards"? Forget it. With that cartoon storyline about the computer hacker with his little dog and the drama's hopelessly uninformed idea of how the press actually interacts with the political establishment? Was there ever as improbable a "star" political reporter as Kate Mara's Zoe Barnes?
And by the way, Louis-Dreyfus is the greatest comedic actress in the history of American television. That's my second big thought after screening the first five episodes of the new season. And don't tell me about the "Lucy" reruns you used to watch when you were a little kid home sick with your grandmother who was baby-sitting you.
Louis-Dreyfus is every bit the physical comedian Ball was, and the real power of the most Emmy-honored actress ever is in her cerebral game. With the character of Vice President Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus constantly lets us see the wheels turning inside her head even as she forms the shamelessly insincere and sometimes even lying words she is about to speak. It's what makes watching Selina as she behaves duplicitously such a delight. Louis-Dreyfus makes us feel as if we are on the inside and a party to Selina's scheming.
The big news of Season 3 — and here, I suppose, I have to put my hands over my ears and start screaming, "SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!" — is that Selina runs for president.
First of all, this development is all over social media and HBO's own promotional material, so I have no qualms about discussing it. In fact, you cannot not discuss it, because it is so important an element in the way creator and show runner Armando Iannucci has raised the game for "Veep" this year.
Part of the energy of the series in its first two seasons was the way in which Selina's ambitions were hemmed in by her role as vice president, where job one is to never upstage the boss. Remember Joe Biden's remarks on same-sex marriage and the hell he caught for making POTUS come out on the issue before he was prepared to do so?
The constant frustration Selina felt provided a mostly a negative energy. This season, there's a new and more highly charged, positive energy released by having Selina now running for the top job. She can be as ambitious, craven, scheming, smart, charming, self-indulgent or downright bad as she wants to be. It's up to her now — it's her candidacy at play. And it's exciting to see where Iannucci and Louis-Dreyfus will take the character.
There is also an amped-up energy in the realistic and creatively profane way that many characters, including Selina, speak. I believe that language in this series brilliantly reflects and connects with the anger, polarization, fear and confusion in our national political life today.
I also know there will be readers who strongly disagree with me and can't get past that language. All I can say to them is: Don't forget this is pay cable. If we can't push boundaries here, where can we?
Tonight's episode finds Selina in Iowa, site of the nation's first presidential caucus. She is purportedly only there on a book tour, selling "Some New Beginnings: Our Next America Journey," which she privately describes as a "pile of [expletive]" that she "stepped into."
Baltimore viewers, by the way, might recognize the bookstore where we first meet Selina on Sunday night as Books-A-Million in Columbia. (Soundstages for "Veep" are housed in an industrial park in Columbia.)
"Is this one a caucus-goer?" Selina asks a locally recruited and hopelessly inept press aide as a book buyer approaches the table where she is inscribing books. She's nice to caucus-goers. She's not so nice to the others.
"Is that a 'Star Wars' reference — a new beginning?" one book buyer asks.
"No, it's actually 'some new beginnings,'" she says through a strained smile.
"Too late to change?" he asks bullishly.
"It is, yeah," she says through an even more strained smile.
The quick-cuts of her interactions in the book store with potential caucus-goers are vintage Selina.
"I call it new beginnings, because it's plural," she says to one book buyer as if she is letting him in on a great truth.
"God bless you [pause] et cetera," she says to another after signing his book.
Is there anyone in weekly TV who has better comedic timing than Louis-Dreyfus?
This is a series that isn't afraid to speak the truth that many in Washington understand but won't publicly dare acknowledge: Vox populi can often be incredibly ill informed and even ignorant — almost as ignorant as its leaders are duplicitous, manipulative and dishonest. That's the way it goes in a democracy, when our better angels are ditched in favor of partisan sound bites and postures crafted by political consultants to get airtime on Fox News or MSNBC.
Maybe it takes a non-American satirist, like the Scottish-born Iannucci, to nail that truth and do so without apologies. Whatever the reason, we as citizens are blessed and the medium is elevated by having it. How did this series not win a Peabody Award last week?
"Veep" offers what I believe is the most honest and searing critique anywhere in popular culture of what's wrong with our civic life these days — and it makes us sometimes even laugh out loud as it delivers that damning indictment.
Season 3 of "Veep" begins at 10:30 p.m. tonight on HBO.