After watching and rewatching the first four seasons of “Veep,” HBO’s offering to the TV gods as a pinnacle of the medium, a curious phenomenon stood out: Within the first four episodes of any given “Veep” season, Julia Louis-Dreyfus — who, frankly, deserves some sort of formal title denoting her landmark status as a living TV legend, like “Queen” or “Emperor” — will deliver a moment, series of moments or series of scenes that are like nothing you’ve ever seen her or anyone else perform before.
Last year, it came in Episode 1 when Selina first had to improv the State of the Union and then read words she’d explicitly ordered to be cut. Season 3 found her popping like a balloon, as she furiously popped balloons before announcing her bid for the presidency in Episode 3. The year before that saw the VP running the gamut of emotions while swearing in a slew of new Congressmen before racing — literally — to the war room. And Season 1 kicked this whole thing off with the best WTF line ever delivered.
Now, said phenomenon could simply be because if you pick any four episodes of “Veep,” you’ll likely find a similar standout moment for the ever-growing and always impressive star. Still, that only emphasizes why she’s earned her four Emmys — yes, four Emmys for “Veep” alone, and five if you count her producing trophy last year. With other repeat winners, fatigue could set in after a couple wins (like with Jim Freaking Parsons), but even last year, when Louis-Dreyfus vanquished such admirable foes as Lisa Kudrow (coming back to “The Comeback”) and Amy Poehler (in her final term on “Parks and Recreation”), few lifted a finger to object. She’s simply too deserving. And after four more episodes of “Veep,” this batch fresh from the new season, it’s doubtful anyone will speak up should she take home her fifth acting trophy come September. Yet again, she’s that good.
This season’s choice scene arrives in Episode 4, “Mother,” and it actually rivals my favorite of the aforementioned lot: the balloon meltdown in Season 3. Without getting too spoiler-y, Selina is demanded by circumstance to contort her emotions in a way befitting of public acceptance, but contradictory to her personal inclinations — as is so often the case for the face-saving politico. What results is a hybrid of high-pitched sobbing and uncontrollable laughter, with Selina trying in vain to pass off the latter for the former. Needless to say, the journey Louis-Dreyfus takes us on in just a few seconds is stunning. Her expression twists in futile agony as her body pulls her target of deception close enough to hide what she can’t stop: a grin spreading across a face expected to be weeping. The action repeats until it’s proven useless, and Louis-Dreyfus is freed to unleash her frightening level of pleasure. It’s something to behold, again, from an actor consistently delivering new gems.
Louis-Dreyfus has been the face of the series all these years, steering the ship to awards glory again and again before last year’s crowning Outstanding Comedy Series win. Even as the cast grows with each new year — now featuring a stable of delightfully inept, foul-mouthed characters ready to step in at a moment’s notice and steal a scene — she remains a fitting leader to the lot. Commanding such an ensemble is no easy feat, but actually wielding it is a whole other story. That responsibility had fallen to showrunner and series creator Armando Iannucci, yet 2015 saw the “In the Loop,” “Alan Partridge” and “The Thick Of It” writer abandon ship — not for fear that it would sink, but for personal reasons that make it hard to hold a grudge.
Now, the reigning best comedy has a new captain, and HBO didn’t come up short on the search. David Mandel, a seven-time Emmy nominee who wrote for Louis-Dreyfus on “Seinfeld” in addition to gigs with “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” seems like the perfect choice on paper, and he’s doing an exceptional job thus far keeping the series on course. Smooth sailing can also be credited to frequent “Veep” director Chris Addison, employed for the first three episodes, as blocking the endless verbal assaults tossed around like hand grenades is an art in and of itself. Those who don’t pay close attention to the behind-the-scenes industry action aren’t likely to notice much of a difference between Season 4 and 5, even while those of us who do care may pick up an oh-so-subtle, largely indefinable alteration.
Every year, it has seemed like “Veep” wouldn’t be able to top itself, but the innovative and unrelenting comedy just kept doing it anyway, every year, without fail. Well, so far Season 5 feels as though Iannucci built the ship and is letting Mandel take it out on the water. It’s running just fine, even if it may not get any exciting additions comparable to what’s come before. And that’s just fine. “Veep” has been among the elite of television since Louis-Dreyfus delivered that original oh-so-perfect “What the fuck,” and it’s rather unreasonable to expect the impossible yet again. And I say “rather unreasonable” because those minor miracles are still there — in Matt Walsh’s fresh ways to make Mike’s mistakes seem unforeseeable, in Sam Richardson transitioning Richard into a smartie pants after years of cheerful ineptitude, in Kevin Dunn finding that impossible line between authoritative innovation and absolute hopelessness and, yes, in the phenomenon that is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. All hail the queen.