Season 1 of “Avenue 5,” Armando Iannucci’s first stab at sci-fi, starring Hugh Laurie (“House”), Rebecca Front (“The Thick Of It”) and Zach Woods (“Silicon Valley,” “The Office”), premiered in January. Its nine half-hour episodes are available to binge on HBO, Prime Video and Hulu. HBO also released a guided tour of the “Avenue 5” on YouTube.
In 2060, the Pacific Ocean is toxic due to climate change, Google no longer exists and interplanetary tourism is the norm. Also, the Avenue 5, a luxury space cruise ship captained by the suave Ryan Clark, experiences a momentary loss of artificial gravity that veers it off course, extending the original eight-week voyage into a 3-year-long claustrophobic purgatory and causing an accident that kills the chief engineer.
The show becomes a study of leadership and mob mentality as the authority figures aboard the ship scramble for solutions and attempt to mollify the 5,000 hysterical passengers. Other than the second engineer, Billie McEvoy, the Avenue 5 crew knows nothing about space travel. Unable to keep calm in the disaster, Captain Ryan’s confidence quickly wavers. Beneath his beard and Sergeant Pepper suit, he is merely an actor hired as a comforting figurehead on what is soon revealed to be a driverless ship. With his facade stripped, the captain doubts his ability to lead for the remainder of the show.
It turns out that the bridge crew are all actors as well, employed by trillionaire tech mogul Herman Judd, the owner of Judd Galaxy, a private company reminiscent of SpaceX that owns the Avenue 5. However, as an immature businessman, he is hardly the brains behind the operation. His inferiority complex only makes matters worse. For example, he lacks the humility to accept NASA aid for a rescue mission, declaring the acronym stands for “Not Anymore, Stupid A–holes!”
Instead of thinking for himself, he relies on Iris Kimura, the associate owner of the ship, to do everything for him and to ruthlessly call out his idiocy. This exchange from Episode 7 describes their dysfunctional relationship well: “Who’s this little guy, some physical manifestation of Judd’s ego?” asks Matt. Iris responds, “It’s Iris.” Matt retorts and says, “That’s what I said. Boom.”
Although she is unqualified, passenger Karen Kelly — Karen as in the “Can I talk to your manager?” meme, though not as irritating — is eager to take charge. She often clashes with Matt Spencer, Head of Customer Relations, who is a “wild kind of useless” and the only character who really keeps his cool in the catastrophe. In response to the news that the cruise has been extended to last three years, he laughs and says, “This is fate, and it is free styling with us — this is like jazz fate!” In his interview with MSN, Zack Woods reveals his favorite Matt Spencer line is “I’m a nihilist!” (said with pure glee), which explains everything.
“Alright, our work here is done … poorly” sums up the series quite well as these eccentric characters fail and flail their way through disaster. Armando Iannucci’s inspiration for the mishaps of “Avenue 5” include “Monty Python,” Buster Keaton, his visits to Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as well as cult classics like “Oz,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Airplane!” If you watch the show, expect a campy comedy of errors that might feel a little too familiar.
“Avenue 5” is not particularly revolutionary, but its depiction of times of crisis is particularly timely in 2020. By subverting expectations, it challenges common comedy tropes and sets itself apart from related shows like “Star Trek” or “The Orville.” Because the show is still finding its footing as a comedy, not everything will be funny to everyone. Further, keep in mind that “Avenue 5” is a satire, meaning the whole show is a joke — something I had to remind myself when characters would annoy me (Judd, mostly) or cause me stress (specifically, during the whole series).
“Avenue 5” does establish a more consistent tone toward the end, where unique touches and absurd situations and dialogue become the show’s defining features. For example, I liked how the titles were out-of-context quotes from their respective episodes, such as “Are you a spider, Matt?” and “He’s only there to stop his skeleton from falling over.”
Some of the most memorable lines came from Matt Spencer, who originally doesn’t want to be involved in the passengers’ lives: He says, “I am trained to make sure that your body wash gets replenished, not to rectify the catastrophe of human existence!” Yet, he soon embraces his new role as the ship’s personal coach. This is clearly to avoid dealing with his own problems, which he openly references in advertisements across the ship: “Do you consume alcohol to fill the chasm left by the absence of fatherly love? Then come to happy hour! Your dad won’t be there. He never is.”
To those familiar with Armando Iannucci, his signature combination of vulgarity and wit shines through in “Avenue 5” in unexpected ways. However, the tonal departure the show takes from his other work took some getting used to for me. At first, “Avenue 5” seemed slightly less smart and a bit too slow.
Of course, upon reflection, the sci-fi series is more than meets the eye. Society’s obsession with wealth, influence, aesthetics and attractiveness is reflected in Judd’s prioritization of appearance over safety that puts the passengers in jeopardy. The consequent level of incompetence aboard the ship is staggering, revealing how people in charge must feign confidence when others are counting on them. In fact, the show’s title is a pointed reference to President Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone “in the middle of Fifth Avenue” without losing any voters; the president doubts the fragility of leadership that “Avenue 5” makes clear upon further dissection.
Further, social media encourages cancel culture and the spread of misinformation, which contribute to toxic mob mentalities. Five thousand angry passengers and clueless authority figures in close proximity is a recipe for disaster, which serves as commentary on how the U.S. has behaved during crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The hysteria in the ship is like that on-screen and on the streets. Researchers are tasked with becoming experts about an entirely new virus — most leaders have never experienced a large-scale pandemic, with many failing to handle it properly, and society is split in its acceptance or refusal of the situation. This picture, in which riotous lockdown protestors are pressed against the glass of the Ohio governor’s office, is eerily similar to this scene, where hordes of passengers, sick of confinement, are trying to escape out the airlock, having been led to believe that the Avenue 5 is just a simulation. Spoiler alert — it is not.
Overall, “Avenue 5” shows comedic potential going into its second season, thanks in part to the cast and showrunner. The series stands out by subverting audience expectations in a “Monty Python”-esque fashion, including thoughtful details and commentary and not shying away from outlandish concepts or serious themes. It is not “House” or “Veep” in space, and there are no phasers, lightsabers or aliens. Instead, “Avenue 5” is something new — imperfect but distressingly relevant.