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Zurawik: 'Veep' not so funny, wickedly sharp after departure of Iannucci, arrival of Trump

Zurawik: 'Veep' not so funny, wickedly sharp after departure of Iannucci, arrival of Trump
Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in the final season of 'Veep" starting March 31 on HBO. (L to R) Tony Hale, Sam Richardson, Reid Scott, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Cole. (Colleen Hayes / HBO)

I loved “Veep,” but I stopped watching regularly when creator Armando Iannucci left the HBO series after four seasons.

I could handle the series leaving Baltimore in 2015 after four years to shoot in Los Angeles. That’s business. But Iannucci leaving, that’s art — or, rather, the end of an inspired TV series as art.

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I know some series can carry on with the loss of their creators once a winning template is put in place and there are supremely talented performers like Julia Louis-Dreyfus to execute the plan. And the series did keep winning Emmys.

But a satirist like Iannucci, who made one of the wisest and funniest political films of all time with “In the Loop,” cannot be lost without his absence being deeply felt. After a while, I couldn’t ignore the decline I felt, and I moved on.

Still, I jumped on the three episodes of the seventh season that HBO made available for preview. After all, that final season premieres this month, and I wanted to say a fitting goodbye.

I also wanted to see how the series fared in the Age of Trump. I wondered if, like so many aspects of popular culture, watching “Veep” would also be affected by the way the outsized media presence of our Twitter-crazed president recontextualizes virtually all aspects of political life.

The good news about the episodes I saw: They initially reminded me how liberating this series can be in its willingness to shred the fake pieties, conventions and rhetoric of American political life.

The bad news: That was not nearly not enough to make me want to go out of my way to watch all seven episodes of this abbreviated final season when they air. Almost all the good moments of the three episodes fit in the one trailer included here. When it comes to political satire, the Trump-focused work of “Saturday Night Live” and late-night comics feels far more relevant to my social reality. Everything else seems besides the point.

The season opens on a plane as Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) and her team are headed to Iowa to announce her candidacy for president of the United States. “New Selina Now” say the campaign signs on the plane.

She’s looking over a draft of the statement announcing her candidacy, while simultaneously talking to aides on the plane and on the ground at an airport in Iowa.

“I’m not sure about the part where I say I want to be president for ALL Americans,” she says to her spokesman, Leon (Brian Huskey). “I mean, do I want to be president for ALL of them?”

“How about REAL Americans?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah, that’s good,” she says. “Then we can figure out what I mean later.”

Leon and numbers-cruncher Kent (Gary Cole) both press her for a statement in her own words to include in the press release on why she wants to be president.

“If you want me to use my own [expletive] words, then write me something to say,” she snaps at them.

“Oh, and take out that stuff about immigration. I feel like it’s a little too issuey,” she adds.

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That opening gave me hope that I was in for a fun final ride with this crew. But it was mostly downhill from there. There was a clear inability to capture the manic energy of the best episodes when Iannucci was in charge.

Whereas most sitcoms have one stream of conversation going at any given time, “Veep” seemed to have at least three or four in the days of Iannucci. The hectic and often angry-sounding cross-talk created a perfect sense of the cacophony and chaos of American political life.

There is some of that in the opening moments, which is what raised my hopes. But it dissipates as the episode goes on — that level of noise and comic confusion is never fully realized let alone sustained.

I am sure I am spoiled not just by the greatness of the first four seasons of “Veep,” but also by having had the chance to talk to Iannucci and watch his team work its magic in a warehouse turned soundstage in an industrial park in Columbia, outside of Baltimore.

In a Sun magazine piece in 2012, I described one scene that Iannucci and his team took almost two hours to film.

It featured Meyer angrily telling one of her aides, good-looking and super-vain Dan Egan (Reid Scott), that she was going to fire him.

As Egan started begging for his job, she cut him off with, “Suck-up is not going to fix [expletive]-up this time, you George Clooney [expletive]-face."

(The expletives are variations on a four letter word that begins with “f” that Iannucci characters use a lot. It is not gratuitous. It helps capture the anger, confusion, paranoia, aggression and fear in a world of politics where one misstep can cause a career-ending social-media maelstrom.)

After six different takes with six different uses of Clooney as an adjective, they dropped the reference to the actor altogether with Meyer instead calling Egan a "star-spangled [expletive] face."

In three decades of visiting sound stages, I had never seen that kind of focus and care in creating a sitcom moment, and I could hear how much better the final version of that one line played as a result of sweating one adjective so intensely. I don’t feel that sense of precision in these three episodes.

But in fairness to the current production team, what I am feeling about the current iteration of “Veep” is surely also in part the result of the way the election of Trump has changed my feeling toward politics and my ability — on inability — to laugh about it.

Even Iannucci admits the world of political satire has changed with Trump, and he feels lucky to have left “Veep” before the impact of it was felt.

“I’m kind of relieved, I really am,” he said in an interview in 2017 with IndieWire. “What can you do and say that hasn’t already been said and done by him? Personally, I just find it difficult to be funny about him. I can only be frustrated and flabbergasted by him. Outraged.”

As a viewer, I feel much the same way. How do you satirize children being separated at our southern border, with some of them dying? How do you satirize our president refusing to accept U.S. intelligence reports detailing Saudi Arabia’s role in the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi, of the Washington Post?

Of course, you can mock the president’s outrageous and indefensible behavior, but the consequences of some of his acts are so horrible that laughter of any kind seems inappropriate and even disrespectful to the victims.

As a critic, I can see how the first three episodes of this last season of “Veep” do point to some of the satire ready for the reaping with the huge field of 2020 Democratic hopefuls heading for Iowa. And I like that.

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But even here, given the increasingly dangerous and erratic behavior of Trump, the election of 2020 already seems far too serious to find much amusement, insight or comfort in a satire emphasizing how confused, scared, inept and craven some of the potential challengers and members of their campaign teams can be.

Showing and telling us that is shooting fish in a barrel in the Age of Trump. He and his apologists have given all those adjectives new meaning. And we are now forced to live with the consequences of having elected someone far worse than any character in “Veep.”

What we need now from media is someone as politically wise as Iannucci to show us a way out of this long national nightmare.

Maybe then, I’ll laugh again.

Season 7 starts on March 31 on HBO.

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