Golden Words — Veep, “Election Night”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

“Election Night,” the final episode of Veep‘s fourth season, probably isn’t the funniest episode of that year nor the strongest. And yet it strikes me an entirely appropriate that it stands as the one episode of the HBO comedy series that won a writing Emmy, because it provided a template for how the show could and would improve in its following season.

Veep started its fourth season by making its title inaccurate. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) had unexpectedly moved into the Oval Office, the result of the previous president’s abrupt resignation. The humiliations embedded in the vice-presidency are gone, and the struggles brought on by the power-hungry machinations of others and the wavering competence of her staff now have ramifications on the actual work of the nation and Selina’s prospects to be elected to the office properly in the upcoming election, the latter holding greater prominence in the mind of the candidate herself. Every move goes through a rigorous, if addled, calculation about how it will play with the electorate.

“Election Night” is largely set in a hotel suite as Selina and her team watch results roll in, announced by the cable news networks. It’s a treacherously tight race between Selina and her opponent, the tension amplified by networks calling, rescinding, and then flipping their calls with key battleground states. The well-established dynamics of all the characters play out, with every member of the skilled cast getting at least a moment or two to do their thing, like seasoned jazz musicians taking a lick or two in a closing jam. At the heart of it all, of course, is Louis-Dreyfus’s perpetually extraordinary turn as Selina, shifting back and forth between ravaged vulnerability and savage fury with almost magical deftness.

Where the episode earns its gold is in the concluding ill turn for Selina, a proper mirroring of the impotent frustration of powerless powerful post that was the motivating concept behind Veep in the first place. The voters speak, and the result is an Electoral College tie, leaving Selina’s team scrambling to determine the Constitutionally directed next steps. Including in the scenarios is the stomach-sinking possibility that an evenly divided House of Representatives will ultimately result in Selina will losing out on the position she’s so desperately sought to her own hastily chosen VP, Tom James (Hugh Laurie).

With this narrative Tilt-a-Whirl, Veep displayed a newfound mastery of a trick that was being done splendidly by its Sunday night partner Silicon Valley. It made comedy out of more than blistering dialogue and sharp performances; it found laughs in the audacity of tight plotting that followed every small victory with a brutal loss. And that’s exactly how Veep would continue to play out in its next — and best — season. Selina and her team buffeted by fates that dangle hope only to deepen the bruises left by the ensuing disappointment.

Series creator Armando Iannucci exited Veep with this episode, which all bit guaranteed that the program would become less brilliantly caustic. But “Election Night” simultaneously suggested how Veep could be great without dialogue seemingly generated by a sentient, profane thesaurus. In the U.S. political system, there are endless ways for insults to be delivered.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

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