HBO Hopes Slow and Steady Wins the Space Race in Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5

TV Reviews Avenue 5
HBO Hopes Slow and Steady Wins the Space Race in Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5

Back in 2015, Paul Feig created a sci-fi comedy for the now-very-defunct Yahoo! Screen called Other Space. The series focused on a small space crew captained by an incompetent leader, as they ended up being sucked into a wormhole and trapped in an unexplored part of the universe desperate to find their way home—and lasted eight episodes. (Yahoo! Screen shut down the following year, but the episodes are still all available to watch on Yahoo!😉 Also in 2015, Armando Iannucci left his series Veep after the fourth season of its seven-season run. Since then, fans of satire and insanely creative (and naughty) insults have been waiting for his next television project. That time has now come with Avenue 5, perhaps the most unexpected project to come after Veep, as Iannucci went from a grounded (on Earth!) political satire to a space odyssey satire (at least, it’s billed as such).

That space odyssey satire would be HBO’s upcoming Avenue 5, which—to be perfectly honest—plays very much like a high-budgeted spin on Other Space. Only, in the case of Avenue 5, the incompetent leader is the presumed-competent-until-proven-otherwise Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), the space crew is much larger (along with over 5,000 passengers), and while the Avenue 5 space ship remains in trackable outer space, the issue that makes these characters desperate to find their way home is one that turns their eight-week space cruise (of which there were five weeks left) into a three-year tour. Like Other Space, Avenue 5 is also kind of like “Gilligan’s Island… in spaaaace.” (Neil Casey is also a cast member on both shows. Not Gilligan’s Island.) Because as it turns out, space comedy (at least, in television) isn’t exactly as unknown of territory as space itself.

Veep and Avenue 5, on the other hand, are about as different as two premises can be. But with the combination of Iannucci as the driving force plus HBO—as well as Iannucci alums like Hugh Laurie and Rebecca Front helming the series—the comparisons between the two are inevitable. With that, Avenue 5 has a lot to live up to and doesn’t quite hit the mark in the first four episodes (of the season’s eight) made available to review. At the same time, even if you weren’t going to compare this new series with the former series—or even with Iannucci’s past work in television, like The Thick of ItAvenue 5 would still be an underwhelming contribution from Iannucci. At least, to start. There are obvious expectations that come with the series due to the creative force behind it, and (based on these first episodes) the best way to appreciate the series for what it is would be to ignore those expectations altogether. It’s still a series that needs time to grow into something special, despite special talent driving it on and offscreen.

Once you get past how impressive the set for Avenue 5 is and the appreciation for the logistical headache that has to go into working with enough extras to make the ship seem as full as it’s supposed to be—even if you factor in the number of reasonable deaths that do and will occur along the way on this nightmare space cruise—one is left with Avenue 5 on its own. Iannucci goes with a “slow and steady wins the space race” approach to the story rather than the typical rapid-fire joke and insult machine one might expect. In fact, story is the key to this series—above jokes—as Avenue 5 moves at a leisurely pace when it comes to every reveal about Laurie’s Clark, the Avenue 5 itself, and even the future world in which the series is set. That last one is actually one of the best and understated aspects of the show, as every casual line of dialogue that reveals the state of the world in which this show is set is some of the most understated comedy and best satire the series does—revealing how, despite the evolution of technology, humans are still quite dumb (and, of course, petty and petulant).

In fact, Avenue 5 is also not above juvenile humor, from the fact that the Avenue 5 ship is made to literally evoke phallic injury (there are even balls on the ship) to the toilet humor that is actually integral to the fourth episode (and presumably the series, moving forward).

The story of Captain Clark and his ineptitude in this crisis situation is the center of the show, and considering Hugh Laurie’s track record as a lead and central figure, that one is a no-brainer. The show could easily be on cruise control with Laurie as its lead, and in some respects, it feels as though maybe it is. It was clear from the trailers for Avenue 5 that Laurie’s Ryan Clark is a blowhard captain who speaks more in platitudes and pop culture space cliches than actual know-how, but without spoiling anything, there’s an added layer to the character that reveals just what a fraud he is—one that is actually intentionally covered up in one of the trailers, through the magic of post-production—which follows him throughout the rest of the season.

One of Avenue 5’s greatest strengths is Laurie’s interactions with specific characters at varying levels of in-the-know about Clark’s ineptitude: Billie (Lenora Crichlow), Iris (Suzy Nakamura), Karen (Rebecca Front), and, eventually, the crew of the ship. In the States, Crichlow has been the shining (but not breakout) star of decent-to-kind of good one-season series (Back in the Game, A to Z, Deception), despite having proven her immeasurable talents across the pond in things like Sugar Rush, Being Human, and Black Mirror’s “White Bear.” As the female lead of an Iannucci series, she finally has a bigger platform to show her talents, and while she plays more of the straight woman to the rest of these characters, Iannucci doesn’t forget to let her be funny too. But it’s Nakamura as the dryer-than-burnt-toast Iris and Front as the appropriately-named Karen (the epitome of “That Lady”😉 that truly compete for the role of series MVP, alongside with Nikki Amuka-Bird as Rav, head of Mission Control.

To be perfectly honest, the Earth-set Mission Control aspect of the series is also its most consistently funny, with Amuka-Bird immediately proving more than competent at anchoring a full series based solely on that. Much like the lack of the President’s presence worked for Veep, in a way, Avenue 5 actually fares best when the cursed space cruise is offscreen and Rav is tasked with putting out fires.

However, the least understated comedy and worst satire of the series—by a longshot— comes in the form of Josh Gad’s eccentric billionaire character Herman Judd, an Elon Musk riff that looks distractingly like Will Ferrell’s character from Eastbound & Down. In a cast that features both obviously brilliant and underrated great comedic minds (many of which are British), Gad’s comedy contribution to the series is nothing more than “big.” It’s hard to ignore that his character is essentially an Americanized version of a Matt Berry character (like Matt Berry’s Reynholm from The IT Crowd), lacking absolutely any of the charm (partially because it’s Americanized). Instead, Gad’s Judd is essentially an overgrown child with billions of dollars, whose loudness only drags the comedic moment of every scene he’s in to a screeching halt. While it makes sense that the lack of charm is intentional—in order to really dig the knife into the character type—it also makes for an unfunny and unenjoyable experience.

It’s not even a matter of incompetence breeding humor, as that, of course, ends up defining the Ryan Clark character, as well as Zach Woods’ Matt Spencer, Head of Customer Relations and a character whose “advice” to the passengers (like his fellow Playing House co-stars Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer, who recur here as the world’s angriest married couple) all comes from a place of absolutely no authority or experience. If there’s one thing Iannucci is able to maintain with Avenue 5, even if it doesn’t look like his past work on other fronts, it’s the comedy in incompetence… outside of the Judd character, at least.

As good as parts of the show are, the biggest problem with Avenue 5 is that, ultimately, it’s just fine altogether. Again, going into the series hoping for it to be like Veep or The Thick of It will lead to disappointment straight away. But that’s also because it’s clear that Iannucci is going for something completely different: He’s not just making a space epic comedy, he’s making a space epic. You technically can’t do the former without doing the latter, and because of that, the series understandably has to approach the comedy in a different way than expected. At least to begin. There is a lot of setup—which also makes the fact that the lines about this future world are as seamless as they are impressive—because unlike the inner workings of British or American politics, this isn’t an actual real-world scenario (as close as it might be to one sooner rather than later). Simultaneously, the series is also tasked with deconstructing the set-up of that casual space cruise, which, again is not based on a real-world scenario.

A lot of Avenue 5’s issues do boil down to the growing pains of a high-concept comedy and how that hinders the rapid-fire joke machine one would expect from Iannucci. Even if you’re not familiar with his past work, this is still the case: The jokes aren’t king, the setup and the full story itself is. “Slow and steady wins the space race” is the flight plan that Avenue 5 goes with, for better or worse, and to be fair, it does get better with every passing episode. One can only hope that it ultimately builds into another great Iannucci series.

Avenue 5 premieres Sunday, January 19th on HBO

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.

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