Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivered the best line of David Letterman's final "Late Show" last month during the star-studded rendering of the “Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave” Top 10 list: “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.”
The quip, uttered as Jerry Seinfeld flashed a look of mock indignation referred, of course, to the much (and somewhat unfairly) maligned 1998 farewell of "Seinfeld."
Louis-Dreyfus hopefully is a long way from ending her HBO sitcom "Veep," whose fourth season finale airs Sunday. But with each episode, she's creating greater expectations for the show, which, like "Seinfeld," has become the TV’s best current sitcom, laugh for laugh.
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As with the accidental presidency of Louis-Dreyfus' embattled chief executive Selina Meyer, that distinction comes with a series of asterisks. "Veep" benefits from short, 10-episode seasons, unencumbered by major network censorship (Selina's meme friendly foul-mouthed tirades are a hallmark of the program).
Other top sitcoms of recent years – "The Office," "30 Rock," "Parks and Recreation" – have signed off, while the still-fun "Modern Family" and "Big Bang Theory" appear to have peaked, and "Louie" wanders into darker, less humorous terrain. Promising newcomers like "Black-ish," "Fresh Off the Boat" and "The Comedians" are only just starting to make a mark. Meanwhile, we're in a fragmented media age in which the prospect of a TV comedy series approaching anything near 76 million viewers the “Seinfeld” goodbye drew seems as unlikely as Selina Meyer winning the popular vote.
Still, “Veep” has pulled off the rare feat of getting better as it goes along. That's due in part to a rise in stakes as Selina battles her incompetent staff and her self-destructive tendencies to vie to become the first woman elected president. The show’s ongoing improvement also marks a writing and performing triumph in the “Seinfeld” mold of making us care about unlikable characters whose often-hilarious verbal gymnastics can't mask their shallowness and insecurity.
This season has brought some great lines – most too bawdy to repeat, though Selina’s G-rated put down of her personal flunky Gary (Tony Hale, of “Arrested Development” fame) is a recent favorite: “Gary has a very limited set of skills. Mainly, I would say they are picking objects up and then putting objects back down.” Louis-Dreyfus also puts on a physical show with every forced public smile that belies the venom Selina spews. We’re witnessing a great comic performer in full control of her craft as her character loses her grip.
Sunday’s season finale follows an episode cleverly satirizing the Washington posturing and scapegoat-ism that greets a scandal – setting the stage for whether Selina can emerge from her self-created, election-year muck. The finale also comes just days after Seinfeld’s great web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” returned with a guest appearance by Louis-Dreyfus. "It is so fun to be reminded how funny you are," Seinfeld tells her.
Maybe he needs to watch a lot more "Veep." Check out a (typically risqué) preview of Sunday’s finale as “Veep” continues its rise to new comedic, if not electoral, heights.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.