Forty years in the future, things still suck in familiar ways. There's a space leisure industry now, and Avenue 5, the title cruise liner, is the top of the line. When a gravity mishap causes the 5,000 people onboard to crash against one side of the ship, it tips if off its course and a planned 8-week trip around Saturn will now take 3 years to return to Earth!
This is Armando Iannucci's follow-up to Veep, a Science Fiction comedy where the worst possible people are trapped on a spaceship together. Hilarity ensues. Iannucci has form in misanthropic, merciless comedy about awful people being awful. He comes from a particular school of British satirical comedy that doesn't worry about being warm or likable. It's all about how deep you can stick the knife and how much you can twist it.
This Ain't Your Daddy's Space Opera
Unlike Star Trek where the best and the brightest solve problems together and save the day, Avenue 5 has about 5,000 entitled rich tourists, a captain who's woefully out of his depth, and one engineer who knows what's happening.
Hugh Laurie looks like the kind of amiable, safe pair of hands everyone would want on their side, but that's all he looks like. Zach Woods is the Customer Support rep who turns out to be a neurotic nihilist with no filter when it comes to telling everyone just how screwed they all are. Lenora Crichlow is the sole surviving engineer who knows how everything works, how the math adds up, and just how bad it all is. Rebecca Front plays the one officious, busy-body customer that is the enemy of everyone who works in the service industry. Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer play a couple who hate each other now trapped in an existential hell together.
The comedy targets here – awful people being awful are low-hanging fruit, but the actors go for it. The show's trick is to cast inherently likable actors to play horrible people. Iannucci did this for The Thick of It, Veep and The Death of Stalin. The target of Avenue 5 looks like the private space industry drive headed by the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson.
Josh Gad plays Jud, the entitled techbro douchebag who knows nothing but has the money to never need to be smart. He owns the ship and is now stuck with all the suckers trapped on it. That would be karmic payback if he had any self-awareness at all. He gets to order everyone onboard, make things worse for everyone and himself – but mostly everyone else. Everything is his fault. Suzy Nakamura plays Iris, Jud's assistant and handler who has to both suck up to and keep him under control. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Rav, the director of Jud's mission control on Earth as a high-strung wreck hiding her last nerve under a desperate smile.
"Avenue 5": So What's It Really About?
You can read the show as an allegory for the state of the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The ship is a microcosm of our world where everyone is obnoxious, entitled, demanding, panicking and doomed. The few people who are sensible and sane are stuck with everyone else and ignored or charged with cleaning up the mess. And they're out of their depth. They know exactly how bad things are but they're powerless to help anything. Everything is scattered, chaotic, frustrating and on the verge of total doom.
I look forward to someone realising that there is no way the ship has enough food, energy, or supplies to keep its passengers alive for three years. Somebody has to do the math at some point during the season. So far, nobody on the ship has figured out yet that they're all going to die – and it'll be hilarious when they do.
If there's one criticism, the show perhaps has too many characters and subplots. It's a sprawling, slightly unfocused start, but there are enough jokes and mishaps to keep the story humming along. HBO shows tend to take their time and perhaps it'll come into tighter focus as it goes along. The feeling is that everything is going to get worse and, thus, funnier. It already captures the chaos and confusion we all feel, which immediately makes it relevant.
In Avenue 5, Hell is other people – especially tech billionaires.