Unfortunate timing combined with unfortunate writing.
Last night, while stars of the stage were honoring the Pulse nightclub victims at the Tony Awards, Veep offered a few accidentally untimely jokes in its latest episode, “Camp David.” One of them, a gag involving ironic gratitude for the NRA, even had some viewers questioning why HBO didn’t pull the broadcast last minute. Others saw importance in keeping hard-hitting satire of the politicization of gun ownership going at a time like this. Plus, it’s notably difficult to avoid such unfortunate “coincidences” when there are so many mass shootings these days.
The problem isn’t that Veep made jokes about guns and gays and suicide bombers in a show that happened to air the night after 49 people were massacred at a gay club by a lone gunman. The real disappointment is that, on top of that, these jokes were very badly written and badly executed, especially for a series known for having sharper and wittier scripts. The quality of the show has seemed to have dropped since the departure of creator Armando Iannucci in general – though I’ve also wondered if it’s just psychological for me to think that – but this episode, the first ever credited to Emmy-winning Daily Show vet Rachel Axler, was the weakest yet.
I still love the show. I laugh more during its weekly half hour than anything else on TV right now. The dialogue in particular continues to be amazing and the delivery from most of the actors is brilliant. Much of that apparently comes out of trial and error, though. You can tell by the unfunny alternative takes tacked on to the back of every episode. For “Camp David,” we’re shown that when Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tells the Finnish PM, Minna (Sally Phillips), “We say tight here,” in response to the idea that giving birth was difficult because she has a “narrow vagina,” that’s the best ad-lib that came out of a number of possibilities and was not likely in the script.
The bad jokes and gags, however, are definitely the work of the writer(s), as they’re more integral to the plot of the episode. The NRA gags, for instance, are part of the storyline where Jonah (Timothy Simons) is running for a seat in Congress. An NRA billboard gag is excessive when we already get the point that the organization is against a quote from Jonah’s political rival. And even then, the joke went further than it had to considering how obvious it was in its delivery. In both last week’s episode, “Congressional Ball,” and this one, there have been a handful of bits where the viewer is easily a couple steps ahead of the punch line, which kind of ruins the jokes.
Last week, the big one involved Jonah being tricked into appearing as if he’s yelling at a girl with Down syndrome and calling her non-human. The way it was staged allowed us to envision the reveal – a video cropped so we only see Jonah and the girl – way before it actually plays out on screen. Last night’s episode had a similar situation of someone’s bad word choice being taken out of context. Jonah’s former elementary school teacher and current opponent, the widow Sherman (K Callan), tells reporters she’d warned her old pupil that guns are dangerous. As soon as she says it, we know it’s going to be turned against her, because guns are such a politicized thing.
Going back even before that moment, though, the gun-based comedy was handled clumsily. When Selina gets a call about how Jonah “shot himself in the foot,” the fact that the statement is literal is immediately clear, before Selina’s asks in response, “What did he do this time,” and way before we’re explicitly told and then also shown the punch line. The whole joke would be obvious anyway, but it would at least be tighter if the show cut from Selena’s question to the news coverage of the accident. But sadly Veep is seriously lacking in subtlety lately where appropriate.
As for the gag involving gays, that wasn’t so much a problem of obviousness, though it was only a matter of time until Marjorie (Clea Duvall), who was introduced to the show as an intentional Selina lookalike for Secret Service protection, would in fact be awkwardly mistaken for the President. That it was by the Chinese president and his entourage and Minna witnessing Marjorie, back turned to them, making out with Selina’s daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), is just a huge disappointment in being the cheapest, most cliche kind of mistaken identity gag there is. And of course it’s followed by an equally boring bit of confusion between two people who think they’re talking about the same thing not talking about the same thing.
Finally there’s the suicide bomber line (“I can elect a Muslim AIDS virus. A terrorist fucking AIDS virus in the tiniest suicide vest ever made.”), which is just one of the offensive throwaway lines made by Jonah’s uncle Jeff (Peter MacNicol), and he’s just a throwaway character altogether. I love the actor, but on this show he’s not funny. His abuse and commentary always contains a few too many words, diluting the insult-humor power. And he’s one too many insult-humor spewers on a show already filled with them. Basically, Veep has an issue right now of letting some of its scripted jokes and characters go on longer than necessary. Even when they’re funny, they’re typically still overdone.
The good thing is that it’s potentially an easy save, maybe not for what’s left of this season but perhaps for next. There’s great comedy there, just stretched and padded in places that can be cut down or left more to viewers to appreciate without being so directly fed the point. And then when the extra long lines and set ups are made more quick and concise, hopefully there’s room to pack in even more jokes. Veep is a show that is best when the humor is packed in so tightly that punch lines are appropriately rudely landing on top of each other, not politely waiting patiently for their turn.