One of the central conceits of the first season of HBO's Veep was the carnival of humiliations suffered by Selina Meyer, played so brilliantly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in her capacity as vice president. She battled for relevance while waiting for the phone to ring, surrounded by a staff even more determinedly clinging to shreds of power and significance than she was. Later, Selina wound up battling primary opponents in her own bid to become president — a path that proved to have its own endless frustrations.
Thus, it was risky as the third season ended last summer to abruptly accelerate Selina's career trajectory by having the president resign with less than a year remaining in his term, leaving her to continue her struggling campaign while simultaneously serving, for now, as the first female president.
In theory, what Selina has wanted for the last three seasons, she suddenly has: she is president. She is relevant. People take her calls. This is a fundamental upending of the series if you assume that her real goal has been the presidency. Indeed, her discovery that she would become president not only thrilled her, but led to the moment in which she and her super-devoted personal aide, Gary (Tony Hale), wound up laughing hysterically together in a bathroom as she rummaged through the contents of what they call The Bag, which he carries at all times so as to be of help to her whatever she may need. For a sometimes brutal satire, the show is capable of moments of jarring, unanticipated warmth, but to its credit, it keeps them vanishingly rare and forgets them instantly.
The fourth-season opener on Sunday night began with a gambit that could, in less sure hands, seem like a gimmick: we found Selina at the podium, speaking to Congress, suddenly abandoned by her teleprompter. Then we flashed back, 24 hours earlier. This is a structural ploy that's been used so often in television in recent years that it could stiffen viewers if all it meant was "Wait for the disasters that brought this on!"
In fact, though, what they were getting at was the real heart of the show's bite: the disasters weren't as patently incompetent as they might have seemed. Rather than just being the result of a technical glitch or a dodo incapable of doing his or her job, the teleprompter disaster originated with a cascade of people trying to do their jobs. Even Selina.
The easy way to make political satire is to make all the people venal monsters, selfish and shallow, uninterested in doing anything good, incompetent in every way. That's the most comfortable kind of political satire as well, since it reassures everyone watching that the problem is the monsters we elect and the monsters they employ, and if we could only sweep those people out, we would suddenly be in the warm embrace of a system humming along to our shared benefit.
But Veep is more politically savvy than that. What sets off the teleprompter screw-up is Selina's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which she's shocked to hear them offer up an obsolete submarine program she can get rid of — saving $50 billion that she can allocate in her budget. They assure her that it's an old weapon they no longer need, and that they, the ones you'd expect to be first to defend it if it had any merit and the ones she expects to give her the hardest time about defense cuts, are okay with losing it. When they're gone, she and her staff celebrate having apparently found $50 billion in free money. Money that was basically lying around. Money nobody will miss. And so she has her staff — led by her director of communications, Mike, played by Matt Walsh, and a new speechwriter she inherited from the resigned president who's played by Zak Orth — write the cut into her address to Congress.
As she's minutes from delivering the speech, her staff gets a visit from Congressman Furlong (and men he introduces as "the military-industrial complex"), who explains to her that while the military may not need the submarine for submarine purposes, its manufacture employs people in many states, all of which have members of Congress who cannot just go along with a substantial loss of local jobs. And thus, if she pushes for the elimination of the submarine, they will take it out on her precious Families First Act.
There are two ways to look at this, of course. One is that it's outrageous to want to make an obsolete weapon simply because you're paying people to make it and you don't want to stop paying them. But the other is that this is what representatives do: they try to make sure their people back home are getting their share. The people who voted for them expect them to keep an eye out for their jobs and their money and their economic interests. It's more complicated than anybody being a monster.
What Selina and her staff learn here is simply that there's no such thing as $50 billion lying around that nobody is going to miss; that was a fantasy. Getting money is going to be as hard as always, for the same reasons as always: the money that's being spent means something to somebody.
She needs the speech rewritten on the fly, so she has to vamp on her way up the aisle to buy time. Of course, if you're greeting her in those moments, you don't think she's buying time, you just think she's an idiot. And maybe later, you tell that to the press, and now other people think she's an idiot, because they don't know that she was trying to give her staff time to rewrite a speech.
Mike tries to get her back to an earlier draft, but he's editing while she's taking the podium, and eventually, she finds herself confronted with that blinking cursor. (It's actually more like a command prompt, I think; I'm not sure how likely that is, but: bygones.) She can't read from a printed copy, because Gary, trying to help preserve the line of her suit, swiped her glasses. And when Mike does get her the earlier version of the speech, his inability to keep up with his one obsessive saving and labeling scheme means she winds up with the wrong one. It's one that contains the placeholder text "FUTURE WHATEVER."
Admirably, Selina neither triumphs nor entirely crashes when she's forced to improvise — sometimes she does OK and sometimes she sounds like a fool. But she winds up reading a wrong version of the speech that doubles down by adding $10 million to the program she wanted to abolish. It's absurd, it's wasteful, and none of it is the result of people who aren't, at some level, trying to function.
The theme that so often emerges from Veep -- where Selina is sometimes the villain and sometimes the hero, quite a feat of nuance — is that these characters don't inhabit a great system that happens to be full of terrible people. They inhabit a system that provides perverse incentives that perpetuate dysfunction. It's a braver way to cut into political culture than it would be if that teleprompter had ended up going on the fritz because some political enemy, rubbing his hands together, had cut the wires.