when you make her mad for fun but then realize she’s actually about to kill you
OK sorry but this will be long and probably multiple messages… I think one of the reasons I despised season 6 and 7 so much was the focus on Selina. Now, obviously, the show has always been about Selina, I mean the show is literally named after her character. But in seasons 1-4 (and 5, to an extent) it also focused on her staff and her position as a player in DC. The show wasn't just about the VEEP but everything that surrounded her. We saw how the lives of her staffers affected her career
and we saw how her actions impacted DC and the country. Then things changed in season 6/7 and the show really began to focus on selina. Suddenly the lives of her staff didn’t seem to matter. Rather than feeling like an ensemble show it felt like the JLD show. And I love JLD, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t get hooked on the show because of Selina. I fell in love with the show because of the whole ensemble performance.
Selina is not a particularly sympathetic character, never has been. But that worked for the show when she was part of a larger ensemble. We got to see her more human side when she was with Cath, got to see her connect with another woman in politics with Amy (axis of dick comes to mind), got to see her connect with another ruthless power grabber with Dan…But when the cast kind of separated in season 5 her character suddenly became less interesting to me. More one note.
Maybe I am over thinking this, but I just love the entire cast and want them to shine. I’ve gone back and watched the earlier seasons and the rest of the cast seemed to get way more screen time. They got to have storylines that weren’t always connected to Selina, but they were still important to the plot. I mean, what was the point of Dan at CBS? What did that really add to the plot? Mike at Buzzfeed? These sideplots really didn’t matter in the end. Sorry for rambling, hope this makes sense!
Apologies for the delay in responding – I finished typing up my latest draft of a play today, and am taking the time to catch up on other things as a result.
I largely agree with you, actually, though I suspect I would identify a different cause of the problem than you.
Fundamentally, I think this is a product of Mandel and his team not being able to write the ensemble as an ensemble. To pick two examples more or less at random, both Cheers and Friends were fantastic ensemble shows, and I think if you compare them to Veep you start to see where the cracks crept into the writing.
One of the things Iannucci created for Veep was an incredibly deep bench – so you had Dan and Amy and Mike and Selina and Gary and Sue as our central six, but beyond them there was the White House staff, Furlong, Doyle, Leon West, Sec Def Maddox, Congressman Pierce, Danny Chung…and on and on and on.
I’ve talked a lot in the past about dynamic versus flat characters, and it is relevant here. A dynamic character – in dramatic terms – is one who changes or develops over the course of the narrative, whereas a flat character doesn’t. To give an example we’ll all get, Darth Vader is a dynamic character – we get to know him, we realise his motivations are complex, we are in suspense about what he might or might not do – the Emperor is a flat one – he is just evil the whole way through.
The majority of characters in Veep are flat – with the exceptions of Selina, Amy and sometimes Dan or Jonah (depending on whether Iannucci or Mandel is writing), most of them don’t change. Their behaviour remains fixed within a certain range, and they never really go beyond it.
This isn’t a criticism of the writing – there are some iconic characters (Superman, James Bond and Lara Croft all spring to mind) who are flat in this sense. And early Veep was very intelligent in how it used its characters, constantly bouncing them off each other in new combinations so that, irrespective of whether the characters were flat, because in the course of say three episodes you would see Dan playing off six or seven different members of the ensemble, the interactions always felt fresh and surprising.
I mention all of this because a key feature of Mandel’s writing – and this by no means applies just to Selina – is to lock characters into their season arc and keep them there all the way through. So in season 6, Amy hangs around Selina for months on end…because why not, and Dan plays almost every scene off the CBS cast, none of whom the audience was invested in.
As a result you see the same characters and the same actors playing off each other over and over again. And, while I am the first to declare my fondness for Ben and Kent’s grumpy old man love, I don’t think giving them such a restricted range served any of the actors well. There’s ultimately a sense of…sameness – because without the distraction of “ooh, Dan and Sue are having a pissy little fight, we haven’t seen that in a season and a half” or “Kent and Furlong are agreeing about something what the hell is going on?” the fundamental thinness of the characters becomes a lot more apparent.
JLD is a fantastic actress, but I think this…cramping inevitably had an effect on her performance in season 7 – something like 70% of her scenes are with Ben and Kent, and hermetically sealing into those interactions meant she didn’t really get the opportunity to show off her range.
Put it another way, I don’t think the problem is that we had too much Selina. I think the problem is that we had too much of Selina interacting with a very narrow set of characters – the result of which, for almost everyone in the ensemble, is that characters who had previously been screamingly funny come across as dull. It starts to seem like we’re not watching a character so much as a schtick (and it doesn’t help that at the same time as the writing starts imprisoning the characters in limited interactions, it also coarsens across the board, reducing everyone to crude stereotypes).
Here’s the thing. Good dramatic structure is like truly great underwear – you really shouldn’t notice it. If you notice the dramatic structure – if character choices feel odd, if the climax of a story doesn’t make sense, if you can’t understand why a particular event is being focused on – it’s usually a sign that’s something’s wrong.
Structure is also one of the least appreciated parts of dramatic writing – even talented tv critics often fail to talk about it intelligently – and I think part of that is…we all instinctively recognise when a story is well told and when it isn’t, but most of us aren’t trained in breaking down a story into its constituent parts. It’s something I’ve only come to understand (somewhat) through working as a playwright – even doing an English Lit degree didn’t really help me understand it (most academic writing on theatre or film doesn’t really grapple with them as dramatic art forms – as opposed to literary – in a meaningful sense).
Fundamentally, I don’t think Mandel has a good instinct for dramatic structure – if Curb Your Enthusiasm is anything to go by his preference is for a kind of absurdist story, a kind of snake eating its own tail, where the story demonstrates how fundamentally pointless all of the actions of the story were. Hence we get so many story arcs (especially in Dan’s story for some reason) happening “because they would be funny” – not because they make sense or spring naturally from what came before.
I am not fond of the constant casual sexism and racism in Veep’s later years – but I think the show’s problem goes a lot deeper than that. The hateful language is a symptom of writers who are on a perpetual quest to shock the audience, because they don’t understand how to build a coherent story that will do that for them.
Look at how subtly Selina’s ascent to the Presidency is seeded all the way through season 3 so that when it happens, it’s shocking – I genuinely gasped when I realised what was going on – but it also makes complete sense the moment you think about it. Whereas in season 7 nothing makes sense – and nothing is really shocking – because the actions (and subsequent consequences) of the story is completely arbitrary. Richard and Jonah both ascend to political power in ways that feel entirely predictable (I think everyone called Jonah’s ascent to high office of some kind) and simultaneously nonsensical even within the world of the show.
One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received is that you almost never have a problem in the last act of a play – nineteen times out of twenty the problem is somewhere in the first act.
In other words, the problem really isn’t that Dan and Amy didn’t end up together – the problem is that there was nothing in the early phases of their story that indicated a separation and Dan’s indifference was a remotely likely outcome. The problem isn’t that Richard ascends to political power – it’s that there’s nothing in his story before 7.05 (at the earliest) indicates any political skill whatsoever. The problem isn’t that Selina sacrificing Tibet for the Presidency is implausible – she’s always been capable of terrible things – it’s that it’s impossible to feel this is any kind of moral descent for her, when she hasn’t demonstrated any kind of conscience at any stage in the two years previously.
And all of these stick out so much more when Selina is locked into having the same damn conversation with Ben and Kent over and over again.