When the world of politics is parodying itself better than the most scathing HBO satire, where else to turn but the great unknown of outer space?
From Armando Iannucci, the wickedly brilliant creator of Veep and The Thick of It, comes Avenue 5, a comedy of errors set in space. And while the political theme of Iannucci’s previous work is nowhere to be found in his new series, the same satirical through-line remains: humans are the world’s — nay, universe’s — most destructive natural disaster.
Joke-for-joke, Avenue 5 isn’t moving at the speed of light just yet, but the funniest thing about the new series thus far is certainly its concept, which is really just…going for it. Set 40 years in the future on a space ship taking an eight-week luxury cruise to Saturn, Avenue 5 subverts the idea of space travel as part of the unknowable, fantastic future. Contrary to popular (my) belief, 40 years ago was not the 1960s — math tells us it was the 1980s! And as familiar as the 1980s feel now, so will our present 2020 still feel fairly recent 40 years into the future when, as Iannucci depicts it, we might be taking the terror of humanity to space just for s—s and giggles.
Much like Veep did for Capitol Hill, Avenue 5 takes a setting that’s often seen (or wants to be seen) as beyond the layperson’s comprehension, and knocks it down a few hundred pegs as a reminder that humans can — and will — be selfish idiots just about anywhere. Does that hyper-fun concept mean that this premiere is hitting on the level of Veep in its prime? Of course not. But most comedies take a while to hit their stride, and personally, I look forward to doing some low-impact, mental-weight-lifting at the mind gym I feel confident resides somewhere aboard the Avenue 5. So, let’s just sit back, relax, and laugh at the rich people being pelted by the fiery rocks of their own hot stone massages.
The premiere kicks off with a fast-paced walk through the Avenue 5 ship itself as we meet our new cast of nightmares. There’s seemingly fearless leader, Captain Clark (Hugh Laurie, suave and silly, just like I like him) striding around the ship, humbly shrugging off the constant comments about his heroic actions aboard the mysterious Avenue 3, accepting invitations for drinks, and kissing babies. He’s soon joined by Iris (Suzy Nakamura, perfectly disgruntled) the uber-competent assistant to Herman Judd (Josh Gad in Guy Fieri drag), the billionaire bro who owns the Avenue 5.
Doing the actual work of running a space ship is engineer Billie (Lenora Crichlow, who I have never seen but am now in love with) and her mysterious superior, Joe (more on him later). And if this Carnival ride through the skies had a cruise director, it would be Matt (Zach Woods, stealing every scene with flawlessly executed weirdness), though his title is technically “Customer Support.” Those customers, who require quite a bit of support, are thus far namely comprised of busybody Karen (Rebecca Front, fully embodying the “Karen” persona) and a constantly feuding couple played by Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer. An early episode highlight was hearing St. Clair scream that her character’s husband could find his breakfast seat “at the bottom of the swimming pool on deck, F— YOU!”
As everyone mills about preparing for another luxurious day aboard Avenue 5, back down on Earth, Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird, wound tighter than a space coil) begrudgingly welcomes a tour group into her mission control room to watch the Avenue 5 passengers set the record for the largest yoga class in space. And here lies my personal favorite running joke/torture device of the premiere, as Rav and Captain Clark attempt to have a jovial back-and-forth video chat for the tour group, a 26-second delay between earth and space makes it a bit difficult to build any banter.
I think the 26-second delay, and Mr. Judd’s obsession with fixing, is intended to show what an eccentric he is, but also…that would drive me nuts, and the premiere does an excellent job of reinforcing how frustrating it is to wait 26 seconds for a response to “How are you?” But it’s also the reason engineer Joe is outside the ship working on a pointless project to fix the unfixable delay when disaster strikes…
There is what’s referred to on Billie’s engineering board as a “GRAVITY FLIP” inside the Avenue 5, and the largest yoga class in history goes flying to the opposite side of the ship, as does every person aboard. It is…delightful. Slightly terrifying! But definitely delightful to watch all these rich vacationers in futuristic resort wear being flung around alongside breakfast food, exercise balls, and best/worst of all, acupuncture needles. And then! Just when you’ve caught your breath, and Iris is yelling, “Who brings their dog to yoga?!” we get to relive the hilarious terror once more through the eyes of the pedestrians down in Mission Control due to that damn 26-second delay. “They’re in the safest of hands,” one of the Mission Control staffers assures the screaming tour group…
Reader: they were not in the safest of hands.
It’s revealed over the back half of the episode that most of our leads are highly unequipped to be at the helm of a space ship, let alone one that’s been knocked off its trajectory by, ahem, three years. Letting his true British accent slip for the first time this episode, Captain Clark reveals to Iris, Billie, and Mr. Judd that he, in fact, had nothing to do with that famous Avenue 3 rescue; he’s not actually a captain at all. “What the hell just happened with your voice … are you Australian?” Judd asks, priorities ever in order. Not-Captain Clark explains that he’s English. “What the f—? That’s so much worse!”
Apparently, Captain Clark was aboard the Avenue 3 and is now aboard the Avenue 5 because he’s a charming people-person who does an impeccably reassuring American accent. He’s basically an actor with a fancy hat. So who’s the actual captain of the Avenue 5, capable of rerouting trajectory so they’re not stuck in space for three years?
Why, Joe of course — the engineer who was impaled by his own screwdriver while trying to fix the 26-second delay at the exact moment the Avenue 5 experienced a gravity flip.
So, with no idea how to correct their course, the crew of the Avenue 5 are stuck together for three years, and now the passengers know it too because Karen managed to Karen her way right into the closed-door meeting at the exact time Rav announced the new three-year timeframe. Karen takes this information back to the angry mob surrounding Matt, which makes for my other favorite moment of the premiere: any time Matt doesn’t give a flying yoga ball what happens to him or anyone else because your friendly space cruise director is a self-pronounced nihilist.
“No you’re not!” a passenger cries out after Matt announces he’s a nihilist. “Whatever!” Matt responds giddily. “Everybody scream — AHHHHHH!” Matt finds Karen’s news that they’ve been knocked off course by three years hilarious: “This is fate, and it is freestyling with us — this is like jazz fate!”
Matt also finds Karen and her constant disgruntlement hilarious. “Sir,. I hate to interrupt,” Matt says to Captain Clark, who’s just arrived in the control room with the mission to motivate the people who actually know what they’re doing: “But this brilliant yet furious passenger would like to assign blame.”
Ah yes, that unbeatable combination of self-preservation and assigning blame — maybe Avenue 5 is still a political satire. Either way, with Iannucci at the helm, we can rest assured that in their mission to preserve themselves, the crew of the Avenue 5 is also doomed to preserve each other.
A FEW SPACE NUGGETS:
- “Karen, look, when I was 19, I would go to music festivals and I would sleep on the port-o-potties, so I’m not a stranger to stowaway culture.” Matt’s slowly unfolding backstory is both the anti-Jared (Zach Woods’ disarmingly earnest Silicon Valley character) and…extremely Jared.
- “Well, if we’re listing accomplishments, I was the first man to get alcohol poisoning at Maplewood Middle School.” See!
- The future is now: “This may be the worst disaster since Google folded!” “They turned the moon into a massive jail, they patented the liquid glove, how hard could it be to reset a course?!”
- I love Hugh Laurie screeching that everything is going to be fine, and then screeching even higher: “Pay attention to my words, and not my tone!” Also, his constant corny asides that only increase once disaster strikes: “That is a super tourniquet … do you do gift-wrapping?”
- Okay, and one more from Matt: “I am trained to make sure that your body wash gets replenished, not to rectify the catastrophe of human existence!”