Coming into his first term, President Barack Obama inherited two wars, a recession, and a $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit. When David Mandel became the new showrunner on Veep last year, following the exit of series creator Armando Ianucci, he got off comparatively light.
Mandel inherited singular lead actress, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the stellar ensemble cast in her orbit, along with most of the show’s writing staff. However, he was also left with one hell of a cliffhanger ending. The election arc of season four, which found interim President Selina Meyer struggling to win her bid, ended in a tie. Not only did Seinfeld vet Mandel have to figure out how to steer the ship, he was forced to choose a direction and plot the course. Although it proved to be a bumpy journey for the characters themselves, viewers found it riveting. So did the Television Academy. During last night’s Emmy Awards broadcast, Veep brought home a second consecutive win for Best Comedy. (Louis-Dreyfus also notched her fifth in a row for Best Actress in a comedy.)
This honor caps off an unusually smooth transition between showrunners, especially considering the degree to which creator Ianucci’s fingerprints are all over the series. Historically, a high-profile changing of the guard on a TV show is something akin to a death knell. Consider the season of Community following Dan Harmon’s exit, which went on to be known as the gas-leak year when he later returned. Season five of Veep, however, honors the groundwork of previous seasons while upping the ante. Perhaps the difference between these two shows is that Harmon was forced out while Arnucci left of his own accord after a presidential four-year term. The credit obviously goes to Mandel for what he did with the show, though, rather than the condition in which he received it. Here are four reasons why he did way more than merely keep the ship afloat.
Veep could already boast one of the all-time great comedic ensembles by the time it found its rhythm in the first season. The roster continued to grow, though, adding along the way incredible finds like Sam Richardson as Richard Splett, and boldface names like Hugh Laurie. Season five retained the core cast, wisely seeded in established side characters portrayed by Lennon Parham and Kathy Najimy, and also added a crack team of seasoned comedic actors in supporting roles, including Martin Mull, Scott Adsit, and John Slattery. For a show that’s always been teeming with talent, this season was especially stacked.
Throwing Hugh Laurie into the mix as vice presidential candidate Tom James was part of what made season four work as well as it did. Considering how much the character’s popularity kept threatening to overshadow Selina Meyer’s, there was bound to be some way to address this complicated professional rivalry in season five. Mandel managed to keep this tension quietly brewing throughout the new season and then ratchet it up until the denouement. Meanwhile, the odd trajectory of magnificent goon Jonah Ryan–which has gone up, down, and sideways in almost every season–found its logical conclusion in Ryan’s surprise election to Congress.
As soon as Selina Meyer’s daughter, Catherine, played by Sarah Sutherland, began following the presidential crew around with a camera for a student documentary project, it was clear that this was not going to end well. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to Meyer’s constant demands that Catherine stop filming, leaving viewers to guess what gems she managed to record. Finally, on the penultimate episode, we got to see the entire documentary, Kissing Your Sister. (Interestingly, only we got to see it—on the finale, Catherine’s hard drive with the film on it mysteriously disappears.) This innovative episode provided a spectacular payoff to a season-long runner—deepening previous jokes such as Mike McLintock’s ongoing paranoia, filling in story gaps, and even squeezing in some poignancy. No wonder the episode was nominated for a writing Emmy.
Mandel always knew one element of how the season four cliffhanger would end: that Selina Meyer would not be elected president. What he arrived at instead, though, with the help of his remarkable team, is Meyer’s absolute apocalypse. Not only does she not win the election, and not only is she unable to retain any shred of power as the new VP, but she is beaten by Laura Montez, who history will recognize as the first elected female president, reducing Meyer to a mere footnote. (There are other unfortunate ironies shaded in as well.) This ending could easily be a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the series. Fortunately, the ratings are high, the reviews are adoring, and the cast and crew are game, so the show will go on. Let’s see if Mandel does as good a job digging himself out of the hole he created as the one he inherited.