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State of the union

U.S. political shenanigans outstrip outrageous series' satire, but fake POTUS Selina Meyer has her finger on the F-bomb

LACEY TERRELL / HBO</p><p>Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep.</p>

LACEY TERRELL / HBO

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/4/2016 (1644 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

JULIE JACOBSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS</p><p>Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.</p></p>

JULIE JACOBSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

It’s a tricky business, this TV-satire thing.

When it’s done right, it raises comedy to high art, wresting peals of laughter from its helpless viewers while at the same time forcing them to think hard about the absurdity and injustice of the society that surrounds them.

The Oxford Dictionary defines satire as: "The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues."

For four seasons, HBO’s Veep has ruthlessly satirized the American political process, employing steeply heightened reality, lovably hateable characters and elegantly worded blunt-force profanity to deftly skewer everything that is deplorable and imbecilic about Washington and its desperately ambitious denizens.

It has become, if Emmy accumulations are to be believed, television’s best comedy. It took home the Emmys’ Best Comedy Series trophy last year (after three previous nominations), and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus has captured the best-actress/comedy crown in each of Veep’s first four seasons.

But the made-for-cable comedy, which returns to HBO Canada on Sunday night (check listings for time), faces a new and daunting challenge as it enters its fifth season. Since its fourth-season finale aired last June, real-life American politics — in particular, the Republican Party’s effort to choose a nominee for this fall’s presidential election, and human insult machine Donald Trump’s involvement in that process — has become more bizarre and laughable than even the most skilled satirist could imagine.

So the question is simple: how does one exaggerate and ridicule something that is already exaggeratedly ridiculous?

Since the series’ debut in 2012, titular veep-turned-POTUS Selina Meyer (played by Louis-Dreyfus) has been TV’s most engagingly abrasive character — cold-heartedly ambitious, strategically amoral, blissfully unaware of her intellectual shortcomings and surrounded by advisers and lackeys who, if it’s at all possible, are even better than she is at being ruthlessly inept.

Selina Meyer operates without a filter, which is the only way one can survive in the conversational cesspool of her (barely) fictional Washington, and as a result every episode of Veep amounts to a carpet-bombed cavalcade of variously conjugated F-bombs and knee-weakening insults wrapped around a plot-twist takedown of yet another D.C. stereotype.

To accuse Veep of employing (or overusing) coarse language, however, is both inaccurate and unfair. Profanity abounds, but the manner in which it’s employed is so skilful and precise (the F word, it turns out, is equally effective as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb and exclamation) that the ceaseless swearing becomes almost melodic to the ear. If there’s such a thing as beautiful blaspheming, Veep’s writers have embraced it.

And that’s where Veep maintains its advantage over the real-life political circus that has placed Trump and his GOP rivals (and, to a lesser extent, Democrat hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders) in the centre ring. As their behaviour during the past 10 months has pushed them ever farther into the realm of self-parody, the real-life Republican field (which has now effectively been shrunk to the confoundingly popular Trump and ultra-conservative Texan Ted Cruz) has continued to dumb down the level of discourse.

Where Veep’s fictional and exquisitely scripted characters trade put-downs that are operatic in their grandeur and surgical in their precision ("You like sex and you like to travel?" Meyer asks a hapless White House adviser in an early episode, "Well, you can f--- off!"), Trump’s bullying verbal barrages never rise above schoolyard-taunt level, with "dummy," "total loser," "moron," "totally overrated clown" and "dumb as a rock" being about the best the Donald can muster.

If Trump weren’t so obviously dead-set against having scripted talking points or a disciplined message, one might reasonably suggest a team of writers could help polish his political image, or at least arm him with a more entertaining arsenal of put-downs to lob at his opponents.

As the U.S. electoral cycle bickers and bellows its way toward a November vote, there’s every reason to believe the final head-to-head, Democrat-vs.-Republican showdown will be even more extreme, more fractious and less easy on the ears than the party-primaries undercard. And while their real-life politics will likely make our American neighbours laugh because it’s the only alternative to crying, Veep can still contribute something of value to a pop-culture landscape in which noxious reality has finally out-crazied fictional satire:

A much, much better class of insults.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives Editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

   Read full biography

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