'Veep' Season 5: TV Review

Still great after all these years.
4/24/2016

If there's a better comedy on television, tell that to 'Veep' as the gold standard and HBO favorite enters season 5 on fire.

If you've ever watched a heavyweight fight where the champ roars out of the corner and proceeds to go bat-shit crazy on the stunned opponent in a vicious display of brutality masquerading as making a point — well, then, you know a little about the first episode of the fifth season of HBO's Veep.

There are so many brilliant comedies on television these days — real, laugh-out-loud comedies, not just wonderful little dramedies with droll humor to offset the bleakness — that it's getting ever more difficult to crown a king/queen. Part of that is that comedy, whether you hate the saying or not, really is subjective and prone to your personal sense of what's funny or not. Dramas tend to be more agreed-upon among the masses, while comedies are like favorite bands/artists.

But in a year when Louie won't air — and along with HBO stablemate Silicon Valley, those are arguably Veep's biggest competitors — a lot of hilarious comedies will be duking it out over the course of 2016. In addition to Silicon Valley, which premieres on Sunday alongside Veep (and is exceptional), you've got broadcast stalwarts like Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Blackish (and Modern Family); Amazon's Catastrophe, which has already made an incredible impression in its second season; the streamer's Red Oaks to follow sometime later this year; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which just launched its second season on Netflix (Aziz Ansari's Master of None won't air a second season on that platform until 2017); FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer and the yet-to-air third season of You're the Worst; plus the upcoming second season of Casual on Hulu, and whatever other freshman surprises lurk out there heretofore unknown.

It's crazy competitive.

Beyond that, season 5 of Veep marks the inaugural year when creator and legendarily funny person Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, In the Loop) is billed as a consultant and the show soldiers on without him. Add to that the fact that, even with comedies, 5 years old is long in the tooth in these days of Peak TV, and you've got issues.

Unless you don't. At all. And not even for a second.

Veep's first episode this season is a whirlwind of genius — hilarious, angry, spot-on, searing, relentless — that ends up being a wonderfully exhausting throwdown to every other comedy out there. Veep is saying that its got both hands on the crown, and despite masterful turns by both Catastrophe and Silicon Valley, it plans on keeping them both firmly on the crown.

This is, not surprisingly, the best news ever for comedy fans. With so many series getting their "A" game on, 2016 is going to be filled with gem after gem of pants-wetting episodes.

We all may need that in an election year.

Ah, speaking of elections, Veep kicks off this new season with a twist that is right out of the Iannucci handbook of deliciously perfect conundrums: Sitting president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is tied with Senator Bill O'Brien (Brad Leland) in the electoral college, to which, barely past the credits, she yells this: "Didn't those founding f—ers hear of an odd number?"

Veep is off and running after that, with Meyer ahead in the popular vote and a potential recount in Nevada that could change the presidency.

Before rolling forward into season 5, know this: There are so many jokes in an episode of Veep, it's like a machine gun that never jams or runs out of ammo for 30 minutes. It would be impossible to tell you all the jokes, even if some of the raunchier and more elaborately, beautifully, twisted and dense ones could be done justice by reconstructing them here. This is a series that forces you to pause the remote so that you don't laugh over the eighth and ninth jokes that follow the one you're dying over.

Credit new showrunner and executive producer David Mandel (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live) with not only taking on the daunting task of replacing Iannucci (technically, that was the easy part) but actually nailing it (there you go) in the four episodes HBO let critics see. Veep keeps up its same breakneck pace as President Meyer moves constantly and riffs constantly and puts out fires — or makes other people put out fires or be engulfed by them, constantly — which makes the whole show feel ad-libbed when it's not, an act that pivots back to how great the writing is and how exceptionally nimble and talented the entire cast is.

Seriously — when Hugh (insert your favorite or multiple swear words here) Laurie agrees to essentially be a bit player in this big ensemble, you've got a hell of a show on your hands. Now, granted, Laurie was introduced last season as Sen. Tom James, Selina's new running mate, and he had numerous exquisite encounters with Louis-Dreyfus and other key players. But the fact is he's just along for the ride on the insane ship that is Veep.

With a cast this deep — and Mandel and his writers do an exceptional job spreading out the material this season — how can you say enough about Louis-Dreyfus and her ability to not only lead the series but leave no doubt that she's the magnetic core of it? We're five seasons into Veep, and the first four episodes leave you both in awe of Louis-Dreyfus' relentlessly precise comic timing (her ability to be both verbally and physically funny is unmatched) and dumbfounded about who could possibly unseat her at the Emmys.

What she manages to do with the material here is a real thing of beauty (no surprise to fans, of course), but she seems particularly astute in nailing everything early this season. Not for the first time — but perhaps more impressively than ever — Louis-Dreyfus lands the killer low-brow combo of the dick joke and the ass joke, crushes every rant she delivers, effortlessly tosses off quick one-liners and never misses a facial tic or physical gesture that's needed as a punchline.

It's a masterclass.

As Meyer, she berates the competency of her staff ("They've got a secretary of state and what do I have — Harpo, Chico and Shit-o"); other countries ("Do the Israelis know anything about this? Because they're a sneaky bunch of fucks"); rivals ("Chung would volunteer for a beheading video to get national airtime") and pretty much everyone around her, even her dead mother ("Thomas fucking Kinkade couldn't paint her in a good light").

That's the ongoing beauty of Veep and the Meyer character — Iannucci, from the landmark genius of The Thick of It onward, knew how to portray the viciously jaded politician, the servile, facile, incompetent bureaucrat, the ignorant public, the harping media and every heartless, opportunistic lackey in between. And Veep is full of them. The series explores the dark hearts of politics and humanity, whether it's the experienced, cynical direction of Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn), who says to last year's fall guy Bill Ericsson (Diedrich Bader), "You're as welcome here as a swastika-shaped shit in a synagogue," or formerly ousted Deputy Director of Communications Dan Egan (Reid Scott), who calculatedly sleeps with the sister of former flame Amy (Anna Chlumsky) because he thinks she works for CBS when she actually works for CVS. 

As these fifth-season episodes unfold, the show seems as fresh as ever but able to better deliver on its jokes because the audience is so familiar with and invested in its roster of characters and talented actors, like Tony Hale as Selina's bag/body man Gary; Chlumsky's Amy, who is dragged back into the fray because her competitive need to be the best and squash everyone else remains unquenched; Timothy Simons as the hilariously awful but also sadly eviscerated Jonah (who this season, in a delightful twist, begins answering to Sam Richardson's talky Richard character); Gary Cole as Kent, the senior strategist who struggles with clarity and emotions; perpetually defeated Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh); and the efficiently soulless (and this year, ageless) personal assistant/secretary Sue (Sufe Bradshaw).

Mandel and his writers seem intent on giving these characters (and plenty more regulars) enough lines to keep them included, feed the story and generate a variety of different kinds of laughs. Not that previous seasons didn't accomplish this, but you can sense it anew in the use of Richard, Kent, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) and others. That's a fine entrance, if you will, for Mandel.

Veep doesn't just feel like it's firing on all cylinders, it feels invigorated and out to prove something. And that's potentially bad news for other comedies, but the best news for viewers.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, Timothy Simons, Kevin Dunn, Matt Walsh, Anna Chlumsky, Gary Cole, Reid Scott, Sam Richardson
Created by: Armando Iannucci
Showrunner: David Mandel
Airs: Sundays, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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