When the second season of Veep (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) opens, the fictional White House administration has suffered setbacks in midterm elections.
We know this from the opening scenes, which has our heroine, Vice-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) stumping for candidates by giving rousing speeches that include such gems as: "There is no I in freedom. Freedom is not me-dom, it's we-dom!" As the results roll in on election night, all is farce at the White House. Senate and House seats have been lost. What's needed is "repositioning" for the administration. Naturally, Selina sees this as an opportunity to play a more powerful role. For this, she needs a special kind of lipstick, and naturally her staff are all over that.
Assistant Amy (Anna Chlumsky) has to absent herself, to see her father who is in hospital with a suspected stroke. She goes to the hospital room, relays how busy she is, and her sister is all snippity: "Oh my God, Amy. You work for the vice-president. It's not like it's Google."
Veep remains a curiosity. Armando Ianucci created it, modelled on his savage satire of British politics, The Thick of It, and the spin-off movie In the Loop, but it never applies the same savagery to White House politics. There's drollery and moments of eloquently done farce, but it's just not outrageously funny.
The character of Selina, trapped as an ambitious vice-president, tends to go through the same frustrations, over and over. This is the main trope, the repetition, but it boils down to mildly funny, awkward humour, not wit.
Mind you, there is promise in new character Kent Davidson (Gary Cole), hired as a senior strategist to get the administration back on track. He's cold, calculating and loathed. Selina greets his arrival with a strategy: She tells her staff, "Here's the plan. I'm going to go pee-pee and then we're going to neutralize Kent." Later, the lipstick issue gets messy.
See, Veep is all cutes and no cutting humour. Pleasant comedy, nice to watch, but unlikely to upset anyone.
Things are different, in the 1490's, in the papal court of Pope Alexander VI, but it's also ruthless politics. As the third season of The Borgias opens (Sunday, Bravo, 10 p.m.), the Pope, (Jeremy Irons playing Rodrigo Borgia, who murdered and manipulated his way to the papacy), has been poisoned. He writhes in agony. His enemies gather. His family seeks revenge.
There is much swordplay, and blood spilled at night. Ladies in gorgeous dresses bustle about, bosoms heaving with fear or anger. Rodrigo's sullen son Cesare (Canadian François Arnaud) is forced into the role of protector and avenger.
As this season blossoms, Cesare is by far the most interesting, compelling character, a pragmatic young leader, self-aware, as cunning as he is wary of his father's too-grand machinations. Besides, Arnaud tends to steal every scene, even with Irons attempting to eat the scenery in his lovely papal robes.
Stuff happens, mostly in darkness. Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore), the bitter enemy of the philandering, murderous Pope, seethes. And the almost-as-bitter Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee, who is perfect) has hired an assassin to kill this pope whom poison seems to have only slowed down. As for Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger), she's only getting started in her machinations.
The Borgias is better at savaging politics than is Veep, largely because it acknowledges the ruthlessness as authentic, and not the stuff of office manoeuvres. It's bloody, it's complex. Sometimes it's even funny. And the audience is spared this dramatic news, which comes at the ed of the first episode of Veep: "Two American backpackers tried to smoke a doobie with the wrong dude in Uzbekistan."
Also airing this weekend
2013 MTV Movie Awards (Sunday, MTV, 8:30 p.m.) is apparently hosted by Australian comedian Rebel Wilson, who has the right kind of name, anyway. These are unpredictable awards, sometimes weirdly so. On Sunday, special awards go to Emma Watson and Will Ferrell, there's music from Selena Gomez, and there's an award category called Best Shirtless Performance. Some people will skip Mad Men (Sunday, AMC, 10 p.m.) to see that.
All times ET. Check local listings.