On November 8, as the United States picked its 45th president, Julia Louis-Dreyfus spent the night observing a fake election.
The scene, filmed for an upcoming episode of the television political comedy Veep, unfolded in what was supposed to be a polling station in a post-Soviet republic. Actors dressed as villagers – wool caps, scarves, an unruly chicken tucked under an arm – ambled across the set to dip their fingers in ink, as Louis-Dreyfus, in character as ex-president Selina Meyer, kept watch.
Poor Selina Meyer. She had hoped to become known as a transformational leader like Reagan or FDR but, after losing her bid to keep the White House, has been relegated to promoting fair elections abroad, like some sort of female Jimmy Carter.
“Travelling the globe,” as she puts it in one scene. “Spreading democracy like Patient Zero.”
While Louis-Dreyfus presided over the make-believe contest, the cast and crew checked their phones to keep tabs on the real one. Like many, they fully expected Hillary Clinton to prevail; a writer had even brought a large US map, with plans to colour in the states as they went blue.
When Donald Trump started racking up victories, the map ended up in the trash, and a sense of shock fell over the set. While Clinton wouldn’t speak publicly until the next day, Selina Meyer seemed to be speaking for her that night. One line of dialogue, Louis-Dreyfus later recalled, felt especially relevant:
“Ugh, democracy,” Selina sighed. “What a f***ing horror show.”
For five seasons, the HBO sitcom has deftly parodied Washington, revelling in the pettiness, the naked ambition and, often, the idiocy of the nation’s capital. But now there’s a President Trump. And he and his administration have done a bang-up job of showcasing the peccadillos of that swampy little town on their own.
As such, they’ve made it increasingly difficult to differentiate a Veep plot from a real-life one. We’re now in a world where the president repeatedly insists that a record-breaking crowd attended his inauguration when photos of the event clearly show that the Mall, barely one-third full, was dwarfed by the turnout for Barack Obama’s 2009 swearing-in; and the White House press secretary says things like, “I gotta be honest, the president went out of his way to recognise the Holocaust.”
Not only has the psychodrama of this White House become its own must-watch TV, it’s also raised an existential question for the makers of Veep: what happens to your political satire when the real world has become crazier than anything you could have imagined?
The show, which returned to HBO on April 17 (in Hong Kong, at 10.30am with a same day encore at 10.30pm), has been wrestling with this dilemma since the Trump phenomenon exploded last year. But for Louis-Dreyfus, a complicated election night made at least one thing simpler: channelling the rage that drives Selina Meyer.
“It made it easier to perform,” she says. “It scratches a deep itch for me to satirise or be funny about something that maybe doesn’t seem funny at all.”
Veep is the story of an opportunistic, short-tempered vulgarian who by sheer determination and blind luck rose to become president of the United States. It’s also the story of the pressure cooker of politics, and the people who – out of a desire for power, reputation and, in some cases, idealism – are drawn to it.
“It’s the most accurate show on television,” says Martin O’Malley, the former governor of the US state of Maryland who ran a hapless campaign for president in 2016 and is toying with the idea of running again in 2020. “That’s what it’s like.”
The makers of the show take great pains to get it right. They have become Jane Goodalls of the capital, embedding with White House and Hill staffers to study mannerisms and motivations. They take meetings with the bigwigs – Joe Biden, John McCain and Al Franken, to name a few. Last summer, in preparation for a season in which Meyer will be coping with the aftermath of her electoral loss, they brought Mitt Romney to their offices to pick his brain.
Through their research, they were able to make Veep into Washington’s favourite funhouse mirror, a place for politicos to gaze at slightly warped versions of themselves and their colleagues.
“I’ve met a lot of people who tell me there’s a Jonah in their office,” says Timothy Simons, who plays Jonah Ryan, a puffed-up ignoramus with a knack for gaining from his failures. “None of them, however, ever admit to being the Jonah.”
The show has bipartisan appeal (Supreme Court colleagues Elena Kagan and the late Antonin Scalia used to watch together) and can feel so real that it’s become a cliché to say that Washington, where incompetence often outweighs malevolence, is more Veep than House of Cards.
For all the scathing realism of Veep, though, its creators have had to apply heavy dollops of farce to get the laughs and keep the plot moving. In the last season alone, President Meyer accidentally tweeted private love notes to her boyfriend, then tried to blame Chinese hackers; had a pimple so massive it triggered a stock market sell-off; and lost a deadlocked election after a tiebreaking vote from the House of Representatives.
And yet ... even Veep couldn’t have pulled off staging a Moscow hotel sex romp.
That’s what David Mandel, the executive producer, remembers thinking in January, when unverified claims involving the US president emerged in a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent and were taken seriously enough by US intelligence officials that they warned Trump that the Russian government could have compromising information about him.
“It out-Veeped Veep, ” he says, during a lunch break on a day of filming in a Beverly Hills mansion. “It doesn’t even matter if it’s true or not. The fact that everyone is talking about [this] is just madness.”
He is sitting at a 10-person dining room table, set with white china and candles for a scene they are preparing to shoot, and holding forth on the challenge to say something “revealing about politics when politics has changed so much”.
Members of the cast and crew flit about nearby, plotting the precise comic timing with which to deliver their expletive-laden diatribes. Louis-Dreyfus shows an actor who will be preparing food in the scene how an experienced chef would chop vegetables. When the cameras roll, writers watch from a screen in a nearby room – holding in their laughter, like opera patrons suppressing their coughs, until the scene ends.
“Maybe this is a good thing for Veep, ” Mandel says, of the current political environment. “It’s forcing us to be more clever.”
Veep has a history of not only drawing from real events, but predicting them. There was the time Meyer adopted a hilariously vapid campaign slogan, “continuity with change”; a year later, back in the real world, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kept trying to make his catchphrase “continuity and change” happen. And when US Vice-President Mike Pence was kept in the dark for two weeks about then-national security adviser Mike Flynn’s meetings with Russians, Veep writers laughed to themselves about how Vice-President Meyer used to start each day asking if the president had called. (He never had.)
“Our show started out as a political satire,” Louis-Dreyfus said, at the 2016 Emmys in September, as she accepted her fifth consecutive award as outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for her Veep role. “But it now feels more like a sobering documentary.”
Had she won a Golden Globe this year, Louis-Dreyfus had another joke prepared. Given her show’s track record of foreseeing the future, she planned to say, maybe they could nudge history in the right direction by making the next season about a skilled and competent president who never stoops to petty social media feuds.
In reality, the creators of Veep are resisting the urge to overreact to Trump. They haven’t based a new character on him. It’s possible, Mandel says, that writers may draw from real-life events, but you’ll see it only in passing references. The show has never identified the political party of its main characters, nor has it mentioned by name any politician who existed after Ronald Reagan. It has created its own world for itself and isn’t about to stray.
In that sense, they feel lucky that their show has moved out from the presidency.
“If Hillary was in the White House and Selina wasn’t, I might be sitting here thinking what an idiot I am to have missed this opportunity,” Mandel says.
Instead Veep can double down on a belief that even if the parameters of acceptable behaviour seem to have shifted with Trump, the essential truths about Washington remain the same.
“I don’t know that it’s that different to poke fun at” Washington now, Louis-Dreyfus says. “It’s still filled with idiots.”
The surreal nature of the Trump campaign and presidency affects many American comedies beyond Veep.
Saturday Night Live has leaned into its knack for political comic impersonation, enlisting Alec Baldwin to play the president, eviscerating press secretary Sean Spicer with a rabid Melissa McCarthy portrayal and helping keep presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway a household name. The creators of the animated South Park, on the other hand, have decided to veer from Trump satire altogether. It was getting too hard, they say, to differentiate satire from reality.
For the Veep team, the calculations are trickier. They can’t keep up with the news like SNL, but they also can’t just pretend the world of politics is the same as ever.
“We have a show about politicians getting caught up in their own gaffes, and now we live in a world where there is no gaffe big enough,” says Simons. The worst thing that could happen to Veep would be for it to appear quaint by comparison to the real world.
Yet this could also be the best possible climate for Veep since it premiered. Never before has there been so much interest in the palace intrigue of Washington, and never before has the place been so ripe for ridicule.
“If anything, I’m thinking the audience will be larger,” says veteran Washington news producer Tammy Haddad, who is a consultant on the show. She points to the soaring ratings and web traffic for politics-obsessive outlets ranging from SNL to Vanity Fair to The Washington Post. “I predict twice as many people will be watching.”
The Washington Post