Sexual Harassment and a President Abroad: 'Veep' Boss on "Torn From the Headlines" Quality

The 'CBS This Morning' signoff, a nod to Ann Curry's famous goodbye, comes amid Fox News' scandals.
Courtesy of Colleen Hayes/HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Veep, "Qatar."]

As President Donald Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia during his first trip abroad, former President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) headed to Qatar. And that was only one flagrant real-life parallel from Sunday's episode of Veep: The second came when the lead anchor of CBS This Morning was fired over sexual harassment.

"It's getting eerie," showrunner David Mandel told The Hollywood Reporter. They shot the episode in January but wrote it in June — Trump was a rising presidential candidate, still a longshot at the presidency, and Fox News had yet to be engulfed by sexual harassment claims. "There's a torn-from-the-headlines quality of the show even though we didn't tear anything from the headlines." 

Mandel admits that when visuals of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes and former FBI Director James Comey blending in with drapes begin to circulate, real life can make satirizing D.C. harder down the line. "We probably couldn't do a version of hiding in the bushes for two years before it's funny again — it all feels so on-the-nose," he said. But this week's commentary on racism was influenced by the 2016 presidential campaign.

Here, Mandel explains the inspirations behind tackling racism, gender politics, ageism in media and damaging Americans abroad all in one episode — and why it was time for Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) to get engaged.

You research what ex-presidents do, but did you plan for Selina's trips to coincide with the real president's first trip abroad?

No. There was no sense that this would line up with anything. We knew this season that Selina would travel abroad and we had a lot of ideas, but felt like there was a limit to how many we could do. We landed on two: Election monitoring in the Republic of Georgia and the idea that a former president would be sent overseas to attend a funeral that other people wouldn't want to go to, which is vaguely suggested at the top of this episode. We're in Qatar partially because of Usman Ally, who first played Qatari ambassador Jaffar in last season's "Mother" episode. He popped back in during the final episode and was so good, as well as handsome, so we knew we wanted to bring him back as a possible romantic dalliance for Selina. There was also an element of a Princess Diana-Dodi Fayed thing. We actually filmed a little dialogue but ultimately cut it because we felt like it was better to do it than say it, though Gary does mention Princess Di. 

Jaffar ends up breaking things off with Selina because she's white. Did Trump's campaign influence Veep taking on race?

One of the areas that we wanted to tackle this season was Muslim racism. It's partially connected to Trump's rise, because at the time when we wrote this [in June 2016], Trump was spouting so much anti-Muslim hate and banning Muslims was part of his campaign platform and promises. That was in the air last summer. We wanted to try to do something interesting about it, and that led to the idea of Selina dating Jaffar and then ultimately him dumping her for being white, which we thought was a more interesting take on it. 

When you came up with the idea, you assumed Hillary Clinton would be president. How do you think Veep's trip abroad — and Selina's lack of tact — plays differently against Trump's first trip?

Even if Hillary had been in office, it goes back to something Kent (Gary Cole) said the other episode about Jonah being stupid, "You can't un-ring that bell." I unfortunately feel like you can't un-ring the anti-Muslim bell. So even if Hillary had won, there's no denying the fact that there is a lot of anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim hate in America. Rightly or wrongly, these issues are as much a part of modern politics as anything right now. Under the eight years of Obama I will admit to being shocked by the rise of racism and how it presented itself, both in politics and elsewhere — which is something we commented on last season with the symposium on race that featured only white people. You can't deny that some of that racism was connected to the last campaign and it's something we were looking to address this season. Selina isn't in office, but we're going to try to tackle these things in our own way.

Selina ultimately trades in her fight for women's rights for what she thinks will get her a win with Tibet for her legacy. You've said her library bribe was not her lowest professional moment — is this?

Beyond maybe being a little bit happier with her lot in life, there are still the things that are important to Selina. I don't think she's ever quite gotten over losing to President Montez (Andrea Savage), Montez getting credit for Tibet and Montez winning the Nobel Peace Prize. These are the things that continue to haunt her on a daily basis. So the opportunity to find a relationship that makes her happy, she's willing to trade female rights for it. There's a long tradition of people giving speeches in places and having to curb their instincts. This is more of a flat sellout, and it bites her in the ass and that's of course classic Selina. Julia's performance in that speech really kills me.

How does her jealousy and rivalry with Montez continue to drive her decisions this season?

It's a fact of life. This is a woman that has her job. We try to use it sparingly, where sometimes you'll see Montez. It's like being in a huge fight with Donald Trump and then constantly seeing him on television. The idea of Montez trying to steal Selina's moment abroad was loosely based on actual administrations where, for example, a secretary of state will make an appearance overseas and the president will grab it. There have been times where President Carter has traveled abroad and gotten involved in issues where the sitting president has been upset about that. The rotting flowers was our ode to when disasters happen abroad and Americans swing into action and start sending things. There are famous stories where in Haiti after one of the big disasters America was sending so much warm clothing that wasn't necessary in Haiti, so all these sweaters were piling up on the beaches and rotting.  

Amy (Anna Chlumsky) calls Selina's relationship with Jaffar "political suicide" and Selina doesn't care; in fact, she says she's just starting to feel like herself. Has she given up on her reputation?

Sometimes when you're in the edit room lines that aren't hilarious are the first ones to go. That line wasn't a hilarious one, but it's an important one. If you look at the journey she's taken — Andrew cheating on her again, the heart attack, the depression and coming to terms with some of this stuff about her father last episode — there are moments here where she seems to actually be happier. She's coming to terms with the fact that she is done-done back in the U.S. in terms of politics. With Jaffar, she thinks she's found a guy that isn't like her father. She thinks she's broken the cycle in terms of the Andrews in her life and that he's actually a quality guy. Obviously, he breaks up with her for different reasons, and it's a little sad. She's hurt. There was a willingness to put herself out there and she was burned, and that will move forward in the journey. Also, she's a former president and the implications are different. If she were active, something like the relationship being caught by the press would matter more.

Over on CBS This Morning, Dan pushes out Jane McCabe (Margaret Colin) to take over as lead anchor over sexual harassment. Since you wrote this long before Fox News began to make headlines, what was your inspiration?

That's the real elephant in the room. It wasn't a surprise that it was going on at Fox News, but at the time we didn't have any proof. When the allegations started, it was another crazy Veep coincidence. Roger Ailes [who died Thursday] was making headlines by the time we filmed the episode, but of course Bill O'Reilly came after.

When we created the idea of Dan working on the morning show, we looked at a lot of the big morning show stories we knew about and one of the big stories is Ann Curry's last day on the Today show. The footage is just amazing, where she cringes at the touch of Matt Lauer. That went into the mix of Jane's signoff. We always wanted to build to the Ann Curry goodbye. But another thing we wanted to talk about this season was sexual harassment. There's something very funny about Jane getting fired for having sex with Dan — Dan Egan has sex with everybody, but he actually didn't have sex with Jane, and she gets fired because of that. Human resources gets involved, and Jane loses her job because she didn't have sex with Dan. 

How does having Selina as your main vehicle give you greater opportunity to play with gender roles?

I never particularly thought about Selina as a free pass, but being able to reverse and play with gender makes things more interesting. Had Dan been a woman and Jane been a man, I still think a story where the lie about having sex is what gets you fired is still pretty interesting. What Jane is doing is sexual harassment — the whacking him on the butt, and talking suggestively about it is in itself sexual harassment, I want to be very clear about that. But there's something funny about Dan Egan being sexually harassed.

What were you trying to convey about ageism in broadcast media?

That goes into the "why" she was doing it, from the episode before. This certainly exists in the world of Hollywood, but you see it if you look at these news shows. As the leading ladies seem to "age," you see the younger version, the person who's going to replace you in some way, come in and it's more of a question of "when." It's one of the many reasons that made taking on morning news really interesting for us. Jane's insistence on the studio temperature being cold goes along with her screaming at her producer earlier in the season that she wanted to make sure they did a good "beaver" and leg shot. It's part of that, "How am I going to stay young and make sure the viewers are interested? Well, I'm going to make sure my nipples are perky." She's that horrible, but it's part of the game.

What does this mean for Dan, who is now taking over CBS This Morning?

Dan's finally getting what he wants. He's now the lead anchor — it's his show and now the pressure is on him. As we remember from his nervous breakdown from being Selina's campaign manager [in season three], he does not do well with pressure.

Why was this right time to explore Jonah's personal life — and drop that surprise proposal and have him get engaged?

It came from earlier in the season when he was dating. Something I had heard many years ago was that there was a powerful agent in Hollywood, and as he was making his rise, there was a point where he had to be married and have children to seem respectable. That's part of the Washington game. You can be a young, single Congressman for a while, but if you want to be taken seriously, you take those next steps. If Jonah is going to rise up the ladder, what are the trappings of that? And connecting it to the Sherman Tanz story just seemed logical. 

Does this mean Veep will see a wedding down the line?

It's not a "no" to the wedding, but wedding's are big to-dos and I'm not sure we get quite there this season. She comes from this very powerful lobbying and politically tied-in family and she's much more of a professional than he is, which you see in the Furlong dinner party scene. We wanted to take the opportunity to get a peek at his personal life and also see all these people and their various significant others. It was a great chance to bring back Will's wife, Ben's wife, to introduce Furlong's wife, and also to figure out who Kent's dating. But this is a real relationship and it carries forward. There's a lot to be done. 

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