Media mavens long ago marked next week’s New York City premiere of Game of Thrones as a major date on the 2019 calendar. That night will see the beginning of the end of HBO’s biggest series ever at a moment of significant upheaval for the network and its parent, the AT&T-owned WarnerMedia.
Tuesday night’s sendoff for Veep, HBO’s Emmy-decorated mainstay, offered many of those same themes. It also provided a stirring opportunity for star Julia Louis-Dreyfus to bask in applause after surviving breast cancer. (Rarely does any star get a standing ovation before the screening begins, as this one did.) The premiere, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, served as the latest reminder of HBO’s stature as a buzz magnet but also a place of dramatic and still-unfolding corporate change. Guests included a host of comedians, including Stephen Colbert, Aasif Mandvi, Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer; HBO talent like Lena Dunham and John Oliver; recently installed WarnerMedia entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt; and cultural figures like opera legend Renée Fleming.
The show’s seventh and final season, beginning March 31, sees Louis-Dreyfus returning as President Selina Meyer. In the first and third episodes of the season screened at the premiere (Episode 2 was skipped because of its preponderance of guest stars), Meyer and her campaign criss-cross Iowa. She is planning to announce another run for president, but the field is a lot different than it was in her last go-round. “These are extreme times, and that calls for extreme measures,” Louis-Dreyfus said in a sizzle reel that preceded the episodes. “And extreme comedy.”
Premiere audiences are notoriously easy laughs, but the response at Alice Tully was strong and steady, and the show’s crisp writing and precision timing seem not to have missed a beat. One characteristically risqué touch resolves a Season 6 cliffhanger involving Anna Chlumsky’s hard-driving character, Amy, who revealed she was pregnant after a one-night stand with Dan, a fellow Meyer aide played by Reid Scott. While President Donald Trump is never named in the hyper-real-but-fictionalized universe of the show, he has a clear echo in Congressman Jonah Ryan, Timothy Simons’ mainstay since the show’s opening season. Now running for president as a New Hampshire right-winger, he finds ways to outdo even Trump in the crassness department.
Casey Bloys, the head of programming whose mandate increased last month after the exit of longtime CEO Richard Plepler in a restructuring, said it was “surreal to be here saying goodbye to the show after seven seasons.” Bloys rose through the comedy ranks before his elevation to overall programming chief in 2015, with Veep proving one of the signature shows in his portfolio. HBO, as it has a few times in its 47-year history, finds itself at a crossroads. WarnerMedia is merging many of its operations with those of Turner and plans to commingle its programs with others in a still-developing streaming service launching later this year. To Bloys, Veep, which arose during the post-Sopranos/Sex and the City phase of the network’s evolution, offers proof of HBO’s staying power.
“People ask me all the time about competition from streaming services and cable networks and how I feel about competition, and what I usually say is, ‘What I’m most concerned about it is the high bar that HBO has set in terms of programming,’” he told the audience before the screening began. “What makes me most proud when I think about Veep is I know it will take its place among The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Larry Sanders Show as one of the great classics.”
Bloys thanked a handful of people on the creative side of the show, including creator Armando Iannucci, as well as four HBO employees. He didn’t name Plepler. Showrunner David Mandel, who stepped in for Iannucci during Veep’s fifth season did thank Plepler and HBO in general for “letting us do this show.” He added, “I also want to welcome our new corporate overlords at AT&T and their amazing cell phones.”
The reality of AT&T’s push into traditional showbiz and its remaking of HBO is just starting to sink in across the company. Employees are in the process of moving into a new corporate headquarters building in Hudson Yards, leaving their longtime Bryant Park and Columbus Circle digs. Meanwhile, the comings and goings continue amid the restructuring. Just as the Veep premiere was getting under way, word hit that President and Chief Revenue Officer Simon Sutton would be leaving the company after 14 years. The news didn’t prevent Sutton from attending the event, nor did it put too much of a damper on things, though one HBO reveler spoke for many when he marveled, “You just never know what’s going to come next.”
Mandel, though he offered some sincere praise of Louis-Dreyfus, couldn’t resist twisting the comedic knife as well. “It has been a wonderful run but a particularly crazy two and a half years,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, there was a moment after Julia got sick, there was a moment, and I remember it clearly. We were at the auditions for her replacement and I honestly wondered if this day would ever come.”
After the ovation ended, Louis-Dreyfus reflected in the sizzle reel on the end of the show’s run, which netted her six consecutive Emmy wins for Best Actress in a Comedy. “I’m a wreck these days,” she blurted, dabbing her eyes. She will miss playing Selina, she added, even though it is like “playing a toddler in a very tight dress and heels.”