Much of Armando Iannucci’s work has been directly political, putting the incompetence of elected officials on full blast. As modern politics become blatantly closer to the circus of venom Iannucci parodies in Veep, The Thick of It, In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, it’s somewhat relieving that Avenue 5 has the same flavor of turmoil without the parallel to modern politics that is getting all too uncomfortable.
Avenue 5 sends things 40 years into the future and into space, aboard an eponymous luxury cruise spaceship that meets a dire technical setback and significantly elongates the planned voyage time. The affable Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) quickly finds himself with the unenviable task of reassuring 5,000 confused passengers. In over his head, Ryan enlists the help of customer relations head Matt Spencer (Zach Woods), and engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) to reign in the escalating tensions, as the moronic CEO of the voyage’s financing company, Herman Judd (Josh Gad) conjures up increasingly dumber plans for salvation.
The cast is uniformly good, a testament to the strength of an ensemble that works well together. They play off of each other very well, even as new revelations are introduced every few minutes to raise the collective blood pressure of the crew. Other standouts include the abrasive and very direct Karen (Rebecca Front), her husband Frank (Andy Buckley), frazzled ground liaison Rav (Niki Amuka-Bird), ice-cold second in command to Judd, Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura) and a couple (Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair) in a failed marriage so toxic they’ve earned the ire of their fellow passengers.
It’s important to note that Avenue 5 is not akin to “Veep in space,” and Iannucci’s trademark rapid-fire insults are not the focus. However, his fingerprints are still distinctly all over this, in how it takes a stressful situation and lets the characters slowly tear themselves apart. To boot, they’re trapped here—where facades rarely last more than a few minutes, no one really knows what to do and the next catastrophe is just around the corner. It also has, at times, a deeply macabre sense of humor, with one particularly gruesome gag being one of the best running jokes of the four episodes HBO provided for review.
One of my all-time favorite episodes of Veep is S2E9, “Running.” Vice President Selina, on her way to speak at an ill-advised donor dinner, walks into a glass door, raining down glass and cutting her face. She needs to delay her appearance. Her aide has given her St. John’s Wort, a natural supplement, to help with her mood. However, St. John’s Wort reacts very badly with antidepressants, which Selina has been popping like candy for some time, and she goes completely loopy for several hours. It’s a progressively more uncontrollable situation in which the parties involved attempt dangerous hail marys to try to reign in the collateral damage. This is the tempo that Avenue 5 adopts early on, and the intrigue concerns not how a problem will be solved, but how that problem will morph into something even worse and the effect it will have on the passengers.
Most of the humor comes from how most of the main characters are spectacularly unqualified for their jobs, or at least in some way ill-equipped. Ryan is shown to be far from the confident, affable captain he acts as in the opening scenes. The nihilistic Matt is perhaps the worst choice for head of customer relations given his impressive ability to say the most inappropriate thing when trying to solve a problem. And Judd is such a colossal dolt that it’s clear he’s spent his entire life just failing upward and acting like a child—another signature Iannucci touch.
What Iannucci is doing here is more character-focused, particularly on forcing them into existential corners and confronting their own insecurities. There’s a bit of interesting character work in these first four episodes: A couple about to divorce had a “why not” stance on taking the trip, since it would only be eight weeks, but the ship’s technical problems have significantly delayed the return, leaving them stuck together to torment the rest of the passengers with their incessant bickering. Inversely, Clark is shown to be in a polygamous marriage, and both his husband and his wife are unhappy that he’s gone on the trip regardless of how long it is. It’s clear in their conversation that his career, as well as his alcohol dependence, puts a strain on the relationship. It will be interesting to see how these dynamics evolve and others emerge as the situation on the ship progresses.
The more directly serialized feel of Avenue 5 gives a lot of room for characters to develop. There’s also plenty of time spent skewering the clown show that can be public relations, corporations’ disregard for anything not involving the bottom line, and disregard for regulation. What’s yet to come in the series may very well involve what is going down on Earth on a societal level, but ostensibly the satire will remain focused on humans without straying too far into broader sci-fi.
Armando Iannucci’s distinctive thematic style is here in full force—it might not be the barrage of viciously specific insults, but the real meat of his body of work, of letting characters devolve into animals at each others throats reminsicent of the Stanford Prison Experiment, is what really causes Avenue 5 to blast off.
Avenue 5 premieres on January 19th at 10pm on HBO.