Avenue 5 Season One (HBO)
Written by Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Georgia Pritchett, Will Smith, Peter Fellows, Ian Martin, Peter Baynham, Jon Brown, Charlie Cooper, Daisy Cooper, and Sean Gray
Directed by Armando Iannucci, Natalie Bailey, Annie Griffin, Peter Fellows, Becky Martin, David Schneider, and William Stefan Smith
In the wake of the fantastic HBO series Veep, I wondered how Armando Iannucci would follow it up. He delivered a solid feature film in the Death of Stalin, and I wondered if he might go the movie route. Avenue 5 is an interesting hybrid of television and film, you could argue that this is an extended feature film. The production value is extremely high here, with Iannucci taking advantage of the clout he now has at HBO. This is an ambitious show that takes a bit to get into, but when it finally clicks, you realize we have something very special here.
Avenue 5 is a space cruise ship that has completed its journey and is headed back to Earth. A small malfunction occurs, but the lack of speed to deal with it throws the vessel so far off course that it will take them three years to return home. The supposed leader of this trip is Captain Clark (Hugh Laurie), who is actually a British actor faking a stereotypical American hero voice. The money behind the cruise is Herman Judd (Josh Gad), a disgusting billionaire man-baby who requires his assistant Iris to coddle him. The supporting cast is composed of some familiar faces from American and British television, from Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) to Lenora Crichlow (Being Human).
Part of Avenue 5’s appeal is that while it is futuristic science fiction, Iannucci is, of course, commenting on the present. There is the apparent topic of privatized control of the space program and conjecture about what that might look; a commodified consumeristic hellscape. The passengers on the Avenue 5 immediately become selfish and demanding when faced with the crisis. Leading the pack is the aptly named Karen (Rebecca Front), who embodies every aspect of the privileged white PMC, complete with the harsh haircut and the demand to speak to a manager. The arc of Karen in this season is brilliant as Captain Clark manages to bring her to the management side of the operation by the end.
Zach Woods is reliably hilarious playing totally against type from his previous work. He plays Matt, the head of customer relations and such a wormy, manipulative person. The character is always keeping us on our toes, trying to figure out which angle Matt is playing is genuine and which is part of a game. Matt is reminiscent of an arrogant college kid who has read a little philosophy and psychology, now thinking he can play other people to his advantage but is so horribly transparent.
The glee I obtained from watching Avenue 5 came from the same place that made me laugh, watching The Simpsons as a kid. When the idiotic mob gets caught up in a frenzy, then comedy can ensue. Episode 8, “This is Physically Hurting Me,” has one of the most satisfying mob moments when a passenger who works in special effects becomes convinced that the whole cruise is an elaborate hoax and that they are still on Earth. It isn’t helped by the fact that everyone learns there is a fake bridge that passengers are allowed to visit while the real crew piloting and maintaining the ship live in the dripping sewer-like underbelly of Avenue 5.
If you have enjoyed all of Armando Iannucci’s previous work (The Thick of It, Veep, etc.), then Avenue 5 represents a fantastic new evolution in his aesthetics and scope. Iannucci and his writing staff are masters of witty dialogue and human interaction, so when you clear away all the shiny aspects of this show, it still remains as a keen contemporary satire.