Review: 'Veep' Season 4 and the Limits of Checks and Balances

From left, Hugh Laurie, Gary Cole, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lennon Parham, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, members of the cast on season four of 'Veep' Patrick Harbron/HBO

Like a confused, middle-aged stand-up who proves himself conclusively out of touch, the beginning of the fourth season of Veep had a success-in-comedy problem. The previous season's twist of making Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) the most powerful person in the world without having to, um, win an election should have set the show up for disaster. Watching presidents destroy everything around them with no real consequences isn't the purview of realistic satire, no matter how cutting—it would just be too painful to watch, and eventually too difficult to swallow. But showrunner Armando Ianucci has not only avoided this problem, he and Selina have somehow threaded the needle and overseen Veep's funniest season yet.

Partly, this is because the characters have grown slightly more competent, making the show both more believable and higher in legitimate stakes—each episode generally ends in disaster for one or more of the characters, but not the Meyer administration as a whole. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) leaves, Dan (Reid Scott) leaves, Bill (Diedrich Bader) is likely to go to prison—one of these are comparable to the stakes of the election. Partly, it's because everyone just continues to develop their sense of timing, editing and comedic comfort. But the main reason is that Ianucci, his writers and the cast have found an increasingly complex system of checks and balances, both legal and otherwise, to prevent Selina from destroying the world.

Of course, some of that has happened in obvious ways. With the clout of the Oval Office comes increased scrutiny, making it more and more difficult for the Meyer administration to get up to its normal, pathetic shenanigans (there will be no more mishaps at frozen yogurt stores). When someone messes up, there are only so many possible outcomes. The offender—or an unrelated drone—can get the ceremonial axe, the information can be hidden, or Selina can try to use her power to simply change reality. Season four's penultimate episode "Testimony" finds all three sand castles crumbling, as the now-scattered team turns on itself with gusto.

"Testimony" is a master class in comic pacing and editing, and one of the funniest episodes of the show yet—precisely because it's also the most off-format installment of Veep ever. It starts with press footage—taking us out of Selina's head and showing her as both an object of scrutiny and the president of the United States—before going on to present itself almost entirely in the form of deposition tapes and scenes from hearings that look like they could appear on C-SPAN with minor edits. By giving Selina more power, Veep has the opportunity to leave the confines of the comparatively dull life of a vice president.

Additionally, this season dispersed the cast, both by keeping everyone away from Selina and causing progressively more of them to be fired. Putting Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) and his assistant Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) off in their own world, along with Dan and Amy in Lobbying Land and the core Meyer team back at the White House, broadened the kind of stories (and the kind of stakes) the show could use, allowing for something that, resembles the classic sitcom A-B-C story structure. But where on Friends the stories are defined by more or less arbitrary groupings, on Veep they allow several characters' goals to work in concert and at cross-purposes, particularly when lobbying interests clash with Selina's legislative goals.

This increasingly complicated foundation also shines through in the way Ianucci has highlighted the tenuous social and political systems Selina inhabits, as her need to be liked—in order to get other people to do her bidding, and most importantly, to get reelected—force her into uncomfortable situations. Primarily, Selina has found herself under the thumb of Tom James. Hugh Laurie's seemingly perfect vice presidential nominee might be a good guy, but his needs—and some of his less politically mainstream opinions, like support for full drug legalization—place constraints on Selina's presidential action. Because, while she may have the nuclear codes, she also has things she wants.

Namely, to get re-elected—a goal that last night's season finale leaves hanging in delicious jeopardy with a bona fide electoral tie. "How is that a real thing that can happen?" the characters keep asking when confronted with the possibility of a tie, as if pointing to the real political system and screaming in shock. "What the fuck?!" everyone seems to be yelling. And by now, that hilarious, impotent rage at the way governing too closely mimics the nothings of Seinfeld has become half the point of the show.

Veep's broader relationship to politics has been dissected endlessly, but, in diffusing its targets, it somehow still hasn't managed to avoid the way practically any show about politicians can be perceived as flattering. As cutting as Veep can be about the inability of anyone in Washington to get anything done (and, more importantly, their unwillingness to care), it also puts witty words in the mouths of attractive actors playing recognizable characters, and lets those words come out in fast and funny ways. Hence the cast's presence at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, one of the most cringingly self-congratulatory traditions in a city full of such gestures.

Maybe the fourth season of Veep has secretly been making an argument that might, if internalized, be even more subversive than merely critiquing the way that the people in power wield it: The president might not have that much pull either. Even former Obama advisers not-so-secretly buy into this premise. Veep is our best political show, Dan Pfeiffer argues at Grantland, because it captures the broader, hopeless culture of the place. "The fact that real-life Washington loves the show but often doesn't seem to truly get the joke may be the show's most devastating critique of all," he writes.

That's an unbelievably sad statement. The joke of the political world's delusional self-involvement—and Washington's inability to get said joke—is more important than the office of the president, or the president herself. Selina is dependent on many, many people, and she isn't as close to the show's center of attention as she once was. Now, she's wafting in the wind, waiting to see if she'll get to hang onto the appearance of power, lose an election, or have to go back to being veep. Pretty much every show about the presidency invests the characters with total responsibility; this one just gives her the urge to not be embarrassed. But until a show is somehow able to embarrass the system itself, it's not clear how much Veep, or any other piece of political entertainment, can truly accomplish.

Review: 'Veep' Season 4 and the Limits of Checks and Balances | Culture