Yes, Veep's season premiere was funny. It was also a biting and brilliant commentary on race in our culture — and the never-ending, seemingly inevitable fiasco that follows whenever we try to talk about it.
With Selina's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) campaign in jeopardy, Amy (Anna Chlumsky) wants to move up a symposium on race to make Selina look more Presidential. "Uh, I don't think we're 'symposium-on-race' desperate yet," Selina replies in the first swipe at the topic. In other words: those visits to churches, all that hanging out in Harlem, and even the ostensibly benevolent "conversations about race" from politicians we've seen over the decades is simply strategic theater.
They do get desperate though, after Selina's stress zit sends the stock market tumbling. So the "Towards a New Promise" symposium proceeds. In front of a big crowd and her daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), who's filming for her documentary, Selina greets two Harvard professors, both white. If Veep intended for us to not give that any second thought — after all, when you think Harvard professor, you think white guy in a tweed jacket, right? — then it slipped in a lesson about our own assumptions before the meat of the scene. Because in reality, Harvard has several African-American professors, among them Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Tangentially, just last year, portraits of black professors in a hallway at Harvard Law were defaced in what the school considered a hate crime.) So if any Harvard professors had earned a spot on that panel ...
Anyway, Selina then meets a white woman who is co-chair of the African-American studies program at Howard University, the historically black college in D. C. that claims Thurgood Marshall and Toni Morrison as just some of its famous alumni. "What the f--is going on here?" Selina says under her breath. "Why are they all white?" It's too good. Then she turns to meet the rep from Morehouse, another prestigious black college (Martin Luther King Jr. went there, as did Spike Lee), who turns out to be white too. This is a disaster.
When Kent (Gary Cole) breathlessly summons Richard (Sam Richardson) to go get Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) so they have a black presence, he (consciously or not) invoked the age-old "Oreo" insult. Richard — highly educated, passive, goofy — is black on the outside, and yet apparently not "black enough" to be on this panel. Later, everyone is panicking because of an alarm, and then an aide rushes in with Sue yelling "We got her!" Here, Sue is definitely reminded that she's black after a Secret Service agent aims his gun at her. The sight of her with her hands up saying, "I work here!" is a great gag, sure, but also a representation of what we've seen play out in headlines over and over for months.
What did we learn here, as we laughed? Questions and conversations about race are still messy, awkward and subjective. And because it's still so difficult to talk about, innocent mistakes — or, in this case, a blissful lack of awareness and preparedness — can quickly balloon into a full-blown scandal. Veep is saying that, even after eight years with a black family in the White House, dealing with race still involves putting on a show while dodging landmines, rather than substantive healing and progress.
Veep airs Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.