Avenue 5

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Hugh Laurie in Avenue 5.
Hugh Laurie in Avenue 5.
Photo: Showmax


Avenue 5




4/5 Stars


The Avenue 5 is the latest and flashiest luxury space liner to come from eccentric billionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad), but during a routine cruise around the solar system, a small accident sends the ship, its crew and hundreds of rich, unbearable, entitled passengers off course. What was supposed to be a quick, six-week trip will now take three years to complete – an unbearable situation that looks set to only be made worse by the ship's clueless Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), Judd himself and the hundreds of idiot passengers and crew members on board.


After The Office (US) and Parks and Recreation, creator, Greg Daniels, headed to space with his next big comedy project, Space Force, to decidedly mixed reception (and, to be fair, results). Veep and The Thick of It mastermind, Armando Iannucci, has taken a similar route for his own new prestige series. As it turns out, though, while Space Force actually was a bit of a departure for Daniels and its star, Steve Carell, Avenue 5 is very much business as usual for Iannucci: it's set on a spaceship a few years in the future, sure, but between its none-more-caustic sense of humour, biting social commentary, and a cast of lovably awful, inept characters (especially those in positions of power), calling the show "Veep in Space" is hardly out of order. He even brings a bunch of the same writers over to the new show. 

And yet, perhaps even more than Space Force, Avenue 5 has received an, at best, tepid reaction by critics and viewers alike. Clearly, enough viewers tuned in to net the show a second season, but for an Armando Iannucci project, it has made very little cultural impact. Perhaps Iannucci fans had no interest in a show with this many science fiction trappings, and critics had little interest in a broader, sillier retread of Veep (which already covered similar ground to The Thick of It and its film spin-off, In the Loop), but whatever the case, it landed with a silent, disinterested shrug. It even appeared on Showmax without drawing much attention.

Well, maybe I'm nuts, but I cannot understand the indifference, let alone the hate that Avenue 5 has overwhelmingly received. There's some space for improvement, certainly, but there was plenty of room for improvement in Veep's debut season too, and we all know how that turned out. Avenue 5 may not hit quite the levels of comedic brilliance of Veep at its best (what can?), but I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could love Iannucci's other dark comedies and not at least like Avenue 5.

Its satire may be broader and less direct than Veep's, and it does double down on the breathless lunacy of Veep's later (and mostly Iannucci-free) seasons, but when it's this funny, it's hard to complain. The witheringly dry humour that is Iannucci's trademark is very much present and accounted for, but Avenue 5 also taps liberally into farce, absurdism, and physical comedy to maximum effect. Often all at once.

Take, for example, a funeral scene that appears towards the beginning of the series, where the hapless idiots of the Avenue 5 fail to take into account the effects of gravity when shooting a transparent coffin into space. The scene begins as a relatively sombre riff on the famous funeral at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, but within seconds, as things go very awry, very quickly, the scene piles on farcical mayhem, macabre sight gags, and plenty of rapid-fire, very sweary verbal asides to pack more pure comedy into five minutes than many award-winning, "prestige" TV comedies manage over an entire season.

All of this is centred around Iannucci favourite (and, really, everyone's favourite), Hugh Laurie, as the ship's captain, Ryan Clark, who turns out to be rather less than he first appears. He is, however, a very different protagonist from Iannucci's most famous leads, Veep's Selina Myers, and The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker, mostly by his being, basically, a reasonably nice and likeable guy who happens to be in way over his head. There's fantastically profane anger here, sure, but it mostly comes from exasperation rather than anything more cynical. Laurie is, to the surprise of no one, note-perfect in the role.

Clearly working on the brilliant, massive-hearted The Personal History of David Copperfield mellowed Iannucci out, at least a little, and along with the show's much more personable lead, the vitriolic insult comedy is also leavened, not by sentimentality (don't be silly), but by its goofy, joyously mad approach to satire and to its supporting cast of characters, who are more dumb and just plain weird than anything truly malicious. There's even, in the form of Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow, a TV veteran but, as someone unfamiliar with most of her previous work, a real revelation) a character who is hyper-competent and grounded.

It's a huge cast, and it's tempting to dive into the many, many main or supporting characters, but we'd be here for days. Highlights include Andy Buckley playing the polar opposite of his most famous role, The Office's David Wallace; Yesterday's Himesh Patel as the worst standup comedian in the universe, and Nikki Amuka-Bird as the perennially stressed company liaison back on Earth. Inevitably, though, it's Zach Woods who steals the show as a character very much, not unlike the ones he played so memorably on The Office and Silicon Valley.

Avenue 5 may mainly be about character, comedy and satire, but it also works pretty damn well as a science-fiction-ish series. Its premise - and the constant challenges that its premise suggests – is, after all, the stuff of pure sci-fi drama that recalls everything from Lost in Space to Star Trek: Voyager. It's not remotely near as faithful to its "serious" influences in the way The Orville is, but it takes the idea of being stuck on a spaceship trying to get home just seriously enough to have you binging the episodes, even just for story purposes.

Some might miss the harsher edges of Iannucci's previous shows, but Avenue 5 is a tightly plotted, rip-roaringly funny, colourful TV comedy that the world could always use more of. And I, for one, will be coming back to it not just for its second and hopefully more seasons, but for a rewatch or three along the way.


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