Murder isn’t funny. Mass murder is extremely not funny, and mass murders in schools are beyond extremely not funny. So how does the first episode of the new season of HBO’s Veep make a running gag out of mass shootings, including a school shooting?
Veep, which just launched its seventh season under the eye of showrunner David Mandel, continues to deliver some of the funniest and most daring comedy on TV. Mandel and his writers have the integrity and courage to go in any direction Washington narcissism takes them instead of choosing the cop-out of repackaging Democratic-party talking points as gags, the way the late-night political comics do.
A nonpartisan, ideology-free lampoon of politicians as hypocrites or buffoons can be tame and housebroken — Jay Leno asking “How about those idiots in Washington, huh?” –– but the edge and viciousness of the satire in Veep places it in a special category of political comedy. It’s a generalized curse on the political class, practically a libertarian parable about the folly of entrusting anything to government. Should you delude yourself for a moment into thinking the pols are on your side, Veep says, consider who these people are and what their motivations might be. The show is the antidote to The West Wing: Absolutely nobody is trying to do anything for the good of the country. There is no Aaron Sorkin desperation to rewrite history so that courageous liberals might bask in the purity of their intentions. Also, Veep isn’t sweetened with Sorkin’s nauseating cuteness. It’s The Worst Wing.
The lunging political opportunism that follows a mass shooting enjoys a certain protection from due mockery because no one wants to make jokes amid horror. But Veep is bold enough to tease out the comedy that lies not in the shootings but in the cynicism of the reactions to them. When former veep-turned-president-turned-ex-president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hits the hustings in Iowa for another go at the Oval Office, news breaks that there’s been a school shooting in Spokane. She snaps, “Muslim or white guy? Which is better for me?” (White guy, she thinks.)
Mass shootings make ideal material for Veep because politicians have no clue how to stop them, though they never stop pretending to. To the Washington political class, they simply provide more opportunities to preen before the cameras and jockey for advantage, generating all the meaningless theater that Veep revels in. Meyer is prepared to respond to news of the shooting with the usual bromides when a reporter throws her off, priming her with the idea that people are disgusted with politicians who offer only “thoughts and prayers” after a massacre. Selina’s answer is a hilariously inept attempt to rearrange the clichés: “My heart goes out to the families of the victims and I want to offer them my mindfulness . . . and meditations . . . unto the Lord . . . on their behalf.” Meanwhile the loathsome ex-Meyer-flunky-turned-congressman, Jonah Ryan, whose habitual indiscretion makes him a kind of walking Kinsley Gaffe, is asked about the school shooting and has a different perspective: the shooter’s. “What happened today was a tragedy,” he says. “But here is the hard truth: Sometimes hotshot lacrosse players who think they own the cafeteria can bring this on themselves.”
Veep earn gasps of laughter by going absolutely anywhere: Just in the seventh-season premiere there are jokes alluding to 9/11 (“If Mohammed Atta had you people booking his travel, he’d still be alive today! Which from his perspective would be a massive f***-up!”), lesbian sex (too dirty to quote here), and D.C.’s hatred of the country. Meyer asks one aide, “Why would you want to be president? “So I can nuke America,” is the response. Selina is impressed: “Actually not bad.” There are allusions to three Kennedys, Gary Hart, and Hillary Clinton, whom Selina is channeling when she explains to her body man Gary (Tony Hale) why she really wants to be president: “So as far as I’m concerned, America owes me an eight-year stay in the White House.” She knows she can’t go public with this line — “It sounds like I’m shouting from a balcony in Munich.” So she asks Gary to “Just put down something about how I want to give the American people a better deal or some f***ing crap like that.” The vapidity is worthy of Beto O’Rourke.
Meyer’s big campaign kickoff is endangered because the local contractor she hired to build the stage for her balks at finishing the work: Her campaign stiffed him for a similar event in 2008. The press is about to get wind of it, meaning stories about campaign incompetence will override Selina’s attempt to steer the narrative. She needs a miracle. At which point news breaks of another mass shooting, at a mall in Phoenix. Problem solved: Her handlers figure they can delay the speech out of supposed respect for the victims. “Hallef***in’lleuia!” Meyer says. “We have to send that shooter a nice thank-you card.” Her literal-minded aide Richard (Sam Richardson), checking his phone, replies, “Actually, he shot himself before he could be apprehended. I’ll send something to his wife.” A beat, while he checks the news again: “Oh, actually, he shot her first.” Dark stuff, but comedy is like coffee: The most powerful stuff is the darkest.