“Veep” Races for Laughs

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ winning HBO comedy delivers a new season of irreverent humor at a time when we can use some comic relief in the real and fictional political realms.

Consider this: A seasoned politician seeking to become the first woman elected president slips into an Ohio Chipotle incognito to buy a burrito bowl, but she ­– and her entourage – fail to leave anything in the tip jar.

News of the fast-food follies, fairly or otherwise, dominated the first week of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential run. But the scene could have come straight out the HBO comedy "Veep": It's not hard to imagine mercurial Selina Meyer, despite her disguise, getting peeved over not being recognized – and her beleaguered bagman Gary Walsh literally beating himself up over the tip slip-up.

The fourth season premiere of "Veep" landed this past Sunday, hours after Clinton's candidacy announcement and amid Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio's respective hat tosses into the biggest political ring of them all. The show, a campaign season must-watch, promises irreverent humor at a time when we can use some comic relief in both the real and fictional political realms.

Part of this season's storyline – the vice president gleefully grabs the Oval Office after the president suddenly resigns, but faces party dissension and an uphill battle in the primaries – also echoes the most recent run of Netflix' "House of Cards." But for all the political intrigue and dark machinations in "House of Cards," "Veep" might fall closer to the way Washington operates in the same way that some former cops might tell you that classic 1970s sitcom "Barney Miller" was TV's most realistic depiction of day-to-day police work.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus puts on the performance of her career as president-for-now Meyer, a ball of energy and frustration whose smiling public face belies her irascibility and insecurity (as she said of her presidential rivals in last season’s finale: “God, can't we just take them out? Is Jack Ruby still alive?”). 

That’s one of few printable quotes from a character with the freedom (thanks to HBO) to curse more like a sailor than a commander in chief. Most of her Tumblr-friendly, f-bomb-laden insults are aimed at her inner circle of political players who show varying degrees of loyalty and brains, which tend to run in inverse proportion.

Meyer, whose new shoes squeaked as she walked to the East Room podium to deliver her first public remarks as president, is far from quiet, but sometimes struggles to be heard. That theme dominated last week's strong season opener, built around a TelePrompTer failure during Selina's first presidential speech before Congress – leaving her to awkwardly improvise (“She’s bebop speaking!” declared her political operative Dan Egan, earning him the line of the episode).

Louis-Dreyfus' Meyer is relatable if not always likable, which makes her at least half different from the scheming Underwoods of “House of Cards.”

Meyer’s White House is less a house of cards than a funhouse, complete with an array of political clowns and trick mirrors (or, in her case, the trick glass door she once unwittingly walked through amid trying to smash the proverbial glass ceiling). This season, the accidental president seeks to stick around for at least four more years, putting the upcoming 2016 primary season through a perhaps prescient comic prism.

But even if Meyer remains in the Oval Office, she’ll still be treated like she's second best – at best. The contest she has the strongest shot at winning – future burrito imbroglios aside – is the race for laughs.

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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