'Veep' showrunner David Mandel on Selina's post-presidency, Trump and the series' future
Veep showrunner David Mandel will assure you that the HBO comedy isn't trying to mimic the politics of today, despite some very unsettling parallels. The sixth season (which is the second since Mandel took over from creator Armando Iannucci), has already tackled a rigged election storyline, and in the most recent episode Sunday night, a sexual harassment subplot at a prominent newsroom. They even had to cut a golden shower joke, because — yes, this is where we're at right now as a country — it was too close to home.
But Veep really does maintain its own identity, completely removed from the political spectrum, which is most prominent in season six. This season takes former President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in yet another Emmy-worthy performance) out of the White House and scatters its cast to some unexpected places — can you ever imagine ex-chief of staff Ben working at Uber? In doing so, the show makes a strong case for its longevity.
If Veep can still be Veep — which is to say: a crude, hilarious and sardonic examination of power and those who yearn for it — outside of the White House, then there shouldn't be any rush for the series to cross the finish line.
In an interview with Mic, Mandel discussed tackling Selina's post-presidency, the eerie, real-life parallels between the show and reality, his ideal casting for former President Hughes and the show's future. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: I would probably call this season Veep's most experimental, since none of the characters are currently in the White House. How early were you guys looking at Selina's life post-presidency?
David Mandel: The notion of the post-presidency really goes back to when I first sat down with Julia to take the job. When Armando announced — well, not announced, he knew he was leaving, they knew he was leaving, nobody else knew. And HBO and Julia started talking to me and the first thing they told me about was the tie, which was how he ended the fourth season.
There was a real feeling for me that she could not win the presidency. So I started piecing together this idea that she would lose the presidency, who she would lose to, that that would make it more fun and how we would get there. But that there'd be something interesting about watching her then be a former president, and not even a real, full former president — a former president with an asterisk in the record book, because she had only served basically a year as president.
Again, this goes back to my thoughts on the show, which is that the show has always been about her quest for power, and in some ways it's now about her trying to cling to power that isn't really there anymore. And that this would be this very interesting idea.
All of a sudden, the bare-bones of what this season is started to appear very quickly. So that's where it came from. As the last season ended, I had a semi-clear picture of what this season would be, and then obviously, we filled in the blanks when the writers got back together.
It's also been very entertaining for the supporting cast, who are all over the place. Was there a particular subplot you guys really enjoyed? I got a kick out of Ben taking a stab at Uber.
DM: One of things that I felt — and this is not a criticism, it's just true — one of the less realistic things about the show has always been the fact that her staff stayed with her so long. In real Washington, D.C., over an eight-year administration or even a four-year administration, two years is a good length. You come in, you work two years, you move on to a better job somewhere else and yesterday's intern rises up and is tomorrow's chief of staff.
That certainly maybe is interesting, but obviously at this point not necessarily what we were going to do on this show. That being said, I thought the opportunity to finally get to see the characters sort of let loose and letting them fly on their own was a really interesting opportunity. Plus, the notion that there was collateral damage from the loss and that they were blamed in some ways. Being the staffer of a losing presidency is not a great thing, and we heard that from a number of people connected to the first Bush presidency, where they didn't expect to lose to Clinton and a lot of them sort of couldn't find jobs.
Once that was sort of set up, the idea of something like an Uber for Ben just seemed sort of perfect, 'cause it seemed like it would be very fun to put him with millennials and political correctness. And also just, you know, digital decks and whatever and yet he would probably do a great job — bribing congressmen and lobbying people to get the job done — but it's sort of almost like they need him in a back office somewhere.
We actually shot a little mini-scene that didn't make it to the final cut that was basically — our sort of version of the Uber office was one of these desk-less offices where everybody just works wherever and everything's, like, clear. There was a joke of him scratching his nuts through a clear glass whatever. It was that kind of thing of like, "This is not a good fit," and so that was really fun.
I understand Veep is not intentionally trying to emulate real life, but there are still these parallels that keep popping up. Selena oversees a rigged election this season, and most recently the CBS newsroom in your show kicks out a longtime anchor over a sexual harassment claim, obviously, not long after the Bill O'Reilly stuff came out. How do you guys react to these storylines that aren't tied to real events that suddenly feel relevant?
DM: It's funny, there's two sides to it. Side No. 1 is that I always want people to realize that we wrote this a year ago, and in some cases, some of these ideas are more than a year old. That we're not Saturday Night Live — we didn't see Bill O'Reilly or whatever happen and then do it the next day. Our sexual harassment story is its own unique creature, in that Dan is filing charges of sexual harassment against somebody he's not having sex with. Which, of course for us, was sort of the fun of that story. Coming up with that idea that people think they're having sex, and then he files a sexual harassment charge because people think they're having sex — and it works.
I do always want people to remember that we're not just sitting around doing this as stuff happens. We're writing stories, taking the characters where I think they need to go. And also, we're paying attention, we're watching — we paid a lot of attention to the [morning TV wars] and the Ann Curry's of the world and all that stuff, the Matt Lauer rumors. It's all part and parcel of the show. But it is one of those funny things and it is this weird thing with Veep, and it's been true for the full two years I've been there, where stuff just seems to bubble to the surface that we did and have done.
I always feel good about it, and also a little freaked out about it.
It's also interesting how some elements of the show even feel outdated. I look back at an episode from last season, when Selina deals with the fallout over a bad tweet. This happens every day now.
DM: I was joking that the idea of, "Oh my god, the president just started tweeting," it seems quaint now. It's like, is that episode in black and white? Are you watching it on a hand-cranked moviola? It just seems like it was from 50 years ago, you know? It seems like of another era and it's just madness.
I think the closest parallel on Veep, character-wise, to the Trump administration would be Mike. He is somehow more competent than Sean Spicer, which I didn't think would ever be possible. Do you see any other parallels between your Veep cast and the current administration?
DM: We went out of our way with Mike to make him the worst press secretary in the world, and he looks like he does a better job than Sean on any given week.
I think there's obvious similarities, oddly enough, between Selina and Trump. There's a certain unhinge-yness to her. There's a certain hair-triggered temper; the vicious vindictiveness.
With Jonah, we were very excited by the notion early on, especially — and you'll start to see as the Daylight Savings thing develops through the season — there's a Ted Cruznull to it all. In sort of being, by reputation, the most hated man in the Senate, I think Jonah starts off as the most hated man in Congress. He does a lot of grandstanding against his own party, which is why he's not liked. The Daylight Savings thing almost becomes like a tea party movement, and you'll see that and how it plays against the debt ceiling — another story, by the way, that's in the news right now.
So there's definitely some of that, and I think you just get into types. I think there's a million Bens in D.C., there's a million Kents. I'm fascinated — you know, she lost the election and Kent was doing whatever he was doing, we didn't get very specific about it. But she blamed him, at some point or another she blamed him for everything. He had issues with his models. I can't help thinking — obviously he's not young, but I can't help keep thinking of the mooks of the world.
Like Nate Silver.
DM: Yeah, exactly.
It's also been really fun to see Selina tackle post-presidency right now, like her book deal and the library...
DM: I will tell you this. While we didn't know — look, I'm gonna not lie, we assumed Hillary was going to be president of the United States. We didn't write it one way or another because of that and I'm just simply saying, if you were to ask anybody, we'd have thought Hillary as many people maybe did.
We didn't know Trump was going to be president, but what we did know was that Obama was going to be leaving office. And what we did know was that Obama was going to come out of office with a full-on library and a giant book deal. I think lost sometimes in all of the Trump stuff is — and I think as Obama is done with his vacation and digs back in — these are the things that we were thinking about, actively, when we started to think of the fun as Selina as an ex-president. The more Obama re-engages and does these things, it's only a matter of time before he goes overseas and whatever. We did plan on that a little bit. Not the specifics, but the idea of these things.
So you researched former presidents?
DM: Yeah, we had people in, we talked to former Bush people. We talked to Mitt Romney — not so much about being a president, but the notion of what it's like to lose. Which he was very forthcoming about, he was really nice. We talked with a writer who had been a Clinton speechwriter who helped Bill Clinton with his book. All of these things very much went into the stew.
We also get another mention of former President Hughes this season: Now he's taken Selina's potential seat on the Supreme Court, which is so fitting. Will we ever see President Hughes on screen? Who would be your dream casting for the role?
DM: We joked a little bit about it with the library. There were two thoughts. One thought was maybe seeing him, and one thought was just seeing him in a photo.
Originally, there was a third scene at the library. The idea was that there were very few pictures of Selina — even though she was his vice president — and that the only one was a very unflattering shot where he would be giving a speech and she was off to the side behind him like sneezing or something like that. And then there was the thought, "Well, maybe we only see his shoulder, or maybe we see him."
I don't know, it's like you need somebody larger than life. I guess in my mind, I don't know, maybe like Tom Hanks. And I thought there would be something funny too — even if he was alive, and if you never saw him, but if all of a sudden there was just a picture and it was Tom Hanks. I don't know, it made me laugh, but not enough to try to do it.
Season six really doesn't miss a beat even though it's set outside of the White House. Have you had any thoughts on how long the series would go on for?
DM: I know this is not an answer to your question, which is — and obviously I'm the new guy, so while certainly I'm tired, I'm not nearly as tired as the rest of the cast and Julia who have been doing it now for six years, God bless them. For me, there's just a quality conversation, which is: I only want to do the show when people are liking it.
Let me rephrase: It's not so much that people are liking it, but that I know that the show is good, and I know it's good and therefore people are liking it. But I know it's good. I'm sure there are times in your life, you can do a show that you know is good and people don't like it. And that's OK too. But as long as we know it's good, I want to keep doing the show.
That being said, I think there is a life to the show. I think we are approaching the backend of it now that she's a former president. You know, they did her as vice president for a couple of years, we did her as president for a couple of years — I think there's probably a couple of years in the former presidency and then it probably runs its course.
The post-presidency is as much a viable part of the life of the president. If we were writing the Robert Caro biography of Selina Meyer, there are these phases. And the post-presidency is just as important. I think there's a lot of richness in there to explore.
The sixth season of Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
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