Critic's Notebook: 'Veep' and How We Need to Laugh to Keep From Crying

Real-life politics is a disaster you might want to unplug from for a while. Television can help.
Courtesy of HBO

It's not too difficult to explain why it was so cathartic and so damn fun to laugh so hard and for so long and, yes, even cry, at the first three episodes of HBO's new season of Veep. This country is, in the parlance of Selina Meyer, a fucking disaster politically. And the machinations of the people running it and the various sideshows it has produced are, in the exact parlance of Veep, a total shit-show.

And so, post-Mueller-report, at a time when great swathes of the country have fallen into a depressive fetal position, there was Veep, one of the all-time great American comedies, about to launch its final season — a sad thing but, as it turns out, a necessary thing. Never have I so wanted something to accurately sum up an America that's hard to recognize, harder to live in and in the midst of a protracted, awful and psyche-scarring brawl with itself to either undo the damage or live with it longer. 

I don't see a lot of joy in either journey, so Veep's searing, spot-on assassination of all the players and guilty parties (essentially all of us) was welcome comic relief. I needed it. If you've ever wondered whether television could be a distraction from reality in a way that's defensible, well, duh. Of course it is. 

As a TV critic it would be easy to just finish this column with a list of shows you can use to escape from reality, but I'm hoping to go beyond that. It doesn't need to be mind-blowing or even revelatory, it's just a discussion about the idea of other creative options that might save you. 

It's certainly time to take seriously the notion that prolonged exposure to hateful things, anger-inducing elements in a world that seems unchangeable from an individual standpoint (until another ballot can be cast), might be corrosive to your health.

There's actually science behind that. But you know how some people don't believe in science.

Let's not go there, though, because "there" is the thing some of us are trying to get away from. I've certainly tried to tackle the whole enduring-Trump problem from a TV-specific point of view. Among the many things I've written, there's the one in September 2017 about waiting for TV to catch up to and dramatize the Trump era; an April 2018 column about why I had zero interest in watching the Roseanne reboot (a favorite of right-wing trolls); an October 2018 column on how Amazon's The Man in the High Castle was the best Trump-era drama; a November 2018 column about how the left was long overdue for its own Fox News; another from November 2018 about how the next great TV drama (that David Simon or someone else should write) should be based on a fantastic article in The New York Times on the rise of alt-right extremism; and finally a column from February of this year on how the Michael Cohen testimony to Congress was proof that truth was stranger than fiction and we would never, at least in the next decade probably, get a show that could believably illustrate what we're enduring in this country.

So, yeah, that was a way to talk about our messed-up world from the perspective of how television was or wasn't tackling it.

Time to move on.

I think at some point it's less valiant to be angry all the time because it can kill you. I think mental health — yes, your own — is just as important as raging against the machine because at some point the machine is crushing you into powder and you just don't know it yet. So there's really nothing wrong with escapism when escapism is considered a mental health safety feature and not just a means of maintaining blissful ignorance.

Which is to say, cut yourself a break. It's OK to watch TV to escape reality. It's why it was invented (well, after the whole selling soap part) and in 2019 and the Platinum Age of Television, escapism is a less passive "here we are now, entertain us" cop-out than an artistically stimulating alternative to soul-crushing reality. Translated a second time: There's a lot of brilliant television now. Watching that and taking a break from the news isn't the same as your parents watching old Westerns or Happy Days or terrible sitcoms or '70s jiggle TV. The quality is astronomically higher, the culture proven. You don't need to feel guilty. I'm just saying there's an endless supply of exceptional and stimulating series like never before in history. If you need to take a break from life, it's there for you and it's good for you.

I'm not just advocating for more TV. I didn't need those new Veep episodes to remind me that I'd be happier, mentally, probably healthier and over all more well rounded in my outlook on life and the world around me if I granted myself a hall pass to walk away. I knew it was necessary. TV news — and, you poor things, I hope you're not still watching that — is just an unhealthy cycle of watching torture. Late-night talk shows can make you laugh at the absurdity of the awfulness we live in, but that format is also not letting you get relief or separation. It's keeping you soaking in it.

Mostly what I'm suggesting is something I'm already doing, which is letting some art into my life, more books, lots more music, different kinds of culture, etc. (and taking that digital detox, especially from social media — another thing I wrote about in regards to staying sane). 

Not mind-blowing. Not revolutionary. Just a small gesture — a gentle reminder to seek some solace if needed. And yeah, it's probably needed. I'll definitely finish all those Veep episodes because I need the laughs obviously, but also because I think the ultimate meaning of the final season is going to be something along the lines of wow, look at the "omnishambles" of our current lives, a concept (and word) that Veep creator and former show runner Armando Iannucci understood so well (and current showrunner David Mandel has brilliantly continued). On its most basic level, Veep is funny because it's funny. It's that simple. The harder part of the equation is that it's painfully funny because it's true.

And everybody who realizes that needs a recharge  — if for nothing else, to stay strong for the resistance.