Fictional presidential campaigns tend to be windows into their writers’ beliefs of how America should work. The West Wing’s election cycles pummeled viewers with Aaron Sorkin’s soggy idealism. Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year suggested cynicism as the new patriotism. Pigasus, a hog nominated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, showed just how absurd presidential politics can be.
So it’s clear that as Selina Meyer announces her campaign in front of a carefully managed human backdrop, Armando Iannucci is trying to remind us just how manufactured our candidates are. And Veep has never been funnier for it.
In what might be the series’ strongest episode yet, Selina’s big day is finally here, and for maybe the first time ever, she’s taking a principled stand about something. The titular Alicia is a single mother from Anacostia who’s convinced Selina to add a line about universal child care to her campaign announcement. The speech is locked, the Meyer campaign has a panoply of constituencies to stand behind the Vice President, and Jonah the blogger is being laughed out of rooms by legitimate reporters.
All seems to be going well, until polling guru Kent Davidson appears. “Children are of no value,” he tells Selina, setting off a game of musical chairs that takes Veep to its darkest, funniest places. Alicia, played by Tracie Thoms, is one of the few genuinely good people to appear in the show. More astonishingly, she actually seems to charm Selina, who is generally not a friend of the common people. So when Selina is told by Kent and Senator Doyle, a stodgy party elder with the senior vote in his pocket, that Alicia and her daughter need to make way for the old folks, the resulting meltdown is one of the most enjoyable sequences the show has done.
“I’ve decided that I’m going to let them dictate to me,” Selina says before sinking into a catatonic state with barely an hour before she’s supposed to give her speech. Only her daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), can snap her out of it, and only by appealing to Selina’s vanity. (Makes a viewer wonder if any of the real-life presidential kids have told their parents that their lives have been hell because of their parents’ careers.)
This week’s episode also has some not-so-subtle hints at Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s early career when Saturday Night Live mocks her for having had a pony as a child. Louis-Dreyfus spent three seasons on SNL in the early 1980s and doesn’t always speak of it fondly, so there might have been some catharsis in letting her vent about comedy writers. (The pony incident also recalls Seinfeld’s “The Pony” episode, in which Jerry and Elaine rag on an elderly Polish woman who also had a childhood pony.)
“Alicia” also succeeds in giving Selina a rare victory in a series about the politics of embarrassment. After being shaken back to reality, Selina decides to “wing it” in her speech and includes Alicia, even though she may have to jettison her child-care plank later on. But most of the game is glad-handing, anyway.
Constituencies represented at Selina Meyer’s campaign announcement:
- Single mother
- Sensitive New York fitness guy
- Injured fireman
- Foster mom
- Heroic restaurateur
- Benevolent taxi driver
- Beauty pageant of the nearly dead
- Guy who looks like Jeffrey Dahmer
Selina: Much of her vice presidency has been spent getting steamrolled by party interests, and while Senator Doyle nearly pancakes her again, she gets out of the losers’ bracket by putting Alicia back in the spech and making nice with SNL. Also, you have to achieve something before plummeting back to Earth.
“Dead-eyed white guys”: Art imitates life. We really don’t need to expound on the clout this bunch wields in reality.
Mike: You’d think he’d be a loser after Jonah catches him calling Alicia a “stupid cow” and is forced to kneel down and sing the Civil War ballad “Goober Peas” in hopes of getting Jonah not to run the story, but Selina’s rare decision to stick to her principles gets Alicia to deny the incident ever took place and robs Ryantology of its first big scoop.
Council member Vincent Orange: The opening shot of Alicia features the large neon sign on Good Hope Road, Southeast, that welcomes people to Anacostia. Count on Orange adding the three seconds of DC that appeared in Veep to his arsenal of reasons why the District government should finance the construction of a film studio, an indoor water park, hotels, restaurants, and a 100,000-seat football stadium on the site of RFK Stadium.
Jonah: Of all the unprintable things uttered on Veep, the best ones are about this “bushel of” the most flexible word in the English language, as one of the journalists covering Selina’s kickoff speech calls Jonad. He nearly ruins Mike, but it’s so pleasing to see him fall short.
Senator Doyle: He might be the ringleader of the dead-eyed white guys, but he can’t keep Alicia’s pitch for child care out of Selina’s speech.
Catherine: She should be a winner for yanking Selina out of her slump, but it’s her mother’s retort that lands her here. No one, especially Selina, will thank Catherine for saving the day. Also, they really should have coordinated outfits.