Avenue 5’s Scattered Space Comedy Often Drifts Off-Course

Avenue 5, the new sci-fi comedy on HBO, starts pretty strong before drifting off into space. I really want this show to be great, and I’m hoping that this first episode is just a bit of a shaky start. Join me for some non-spoiler first impressions below!

 Avenue 5 is a near-future sci-fi comedy from Armando Iannucci, best known in the U.S. for Veep, but best known in Britain for The Day Today (precursor to The Daily Show) and The Thick of It (the show that gave us Peter Capaldi snapping “fuckity-BYE” into a cellphone). Now he has turned to sci-fi, with Hugh Laurie in his first big TV role since House, with a show that looks a bit like a spacefaring Love Boat, with a group of wide-ranging passengers heading out for an eight-week luxury cruise around Saturn…before everything goes literally and figuratively off-track.

I think it’s the length? At only 30 minutes, the show has to establish a pleasure cruise in space, up-end the cruise’s innate sense of luxury ad comfort, and deal with an (actually-seriously-horrific) event very quickly, while introducing us to a varied cast of characters. We follow the characters as they dash between yoga classes, backroom meetings, the bridge, and outer space itself, without ever getting a sense of the scale of the ship, the size of the crew, or any sort of real class or culture divisions between the passengers, which undercuts the drama once things get serious.

We meet:

  • Captain Ryan, who is played by Hugh Laurie as a weary everyman;
  • Judd, a be-tracksuited entrepreneur played by Josh Gad as a sort of schlubby Elon Musk/Richard Branson hybrid;
  • A toxic married couple who snarl and snap at each other, with the husband throwing out cliched digs at his wife’s affairs. (If the show is making any nods to Seth McFarlane’s, um, humor(?) on The Orville, I’m guessing this was it);
  • A slightly-less-toxic married couple, in which the husband trails along meekly after his Karen of a wife as she demands better customer service;
  • The head of Customer Relations played by Zach Woods from Silicon Valley, whose main personality trait seems to be saying the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong moment, as loudly as possible;
  • Iris Kimura, the hyper-competent WOC part-owner in Judd Galaxy;
  • Rav Mulcair, the hyper-competent WOC running Mission Control;
  • Billie McEvoy, the pretty-competent WOC engineer;
  • Spike Williams, a former astronaut who was the First Canadian on Mars;
  • Joe, an engineer on an EVA;
  • …and a whole bunch of other characters who get about half a sentence each.

This is, to use a technical term within the media critique community, a LOT.

Within a few minutes of meeting all of these people, there’s an emergency that puts the whole ship in danger, injures most of the passengers, and kills at least one person. But the tone never changes. We never see how hurt anyone is, we’re told there are broken bones but we don’t hear anyone yelling or crying. There’s no blood. A huge group of passengers see the dead person and seem startled, but then start making quips about them. (One says, “if it’s any consolation, he had very few loved ones.”)

The emergency changes the trajectory of the ship, the length of the cruise, and puts everyone in immediate danger, but no one really reacts to that with anything other than more rapid-fire wit, so it actually took me a second to realize that this was this episode’s main point. To be fair, the scene where Mission Control learns of the trajectory shift is actually tense, but even there the humor fell flat to me because the timing just felt off. If I was being generous I could take this is a meta-commentary on the show’s repetitive jokes about the delay in communication between Mission Control and the ship—I think that communication lag is supposed to be the subtext of the show, and the real commentary the creators are making—but it was so bumpy and forced that it never landed as a sly observation on human behavior.

None of it feels urgent, so the show’s reaches for dark comedy can’t really land. And that huge group of people we were just met? Most of them are unscathed, so they just carry on with the same acid banter they were already throwing at us as though the stakes haven’t changed. Since we aren’t given enough time to know any of them, we have no investment in whether they live or not, which undercuts the potential for truly scathing comedy.

Iannucci does his standard rapid-fire walk-and-talk that works so well with politicians and PR people in the back halls of government, but doesn’t coalesce as well when the banter is shared between a bunch of rando passengers, Captain Ryan, a couple of astronauts and technicians, and Judd, who pinballs between acting like a venal rich American and acting like Matt Berry in The IT Crowd. I think what hung it up was simply that each of these people would speak a different language. They all have different skills and training, and they’d be drawing on that when they spoke, especially under great stress, but instead they all speak like…cynical political wonks. At least they do when the show doesn’t employ the time-honored improv troupe plan of “everyone yell stuff at once.”

Having said all of this, I want this show to be good. I can see the bones of a really fun idea, especially once the show finally reveals new information about one of the key characters. And the show does come into better focus when the writers lean into the near-future aspect, with throwaway jokes about the fates of corporations like Google and inventions like “liquid gloves”, and there is one great scene that accomplishes the sick humor the show seems to be going for. I’m planning to keep watching, and hoping the show’s trajectory changes as drastically as the ship’s.

Avenue 5 airs on Sundays at 10pm on HBO. 

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