One of sci-fi’s go-to plots is “disaster in the depths of space,” where a catastrophe endangers the mission and, ultimately, human lives. HBO’s new series Avenue 5 (shown on Sky One over here) takes that well-worn idea and dunks it into a mix of biting wit, cruise-ship cheese, and unlikable characters you somehow can’t get enough of.
The comedy style that Avenue 5 draws upon will be immediately familiar to fans of creator Armando Iannucci’s other (non-genre) series, like The Thick of It (starring a pre-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi) and Veep, and films like The Death of Stalin – lots of cross-chatter, sarcasm, colourful language, and satirical situations that feel almost real until they make the leap into being totally ridiculous.
Iannucci’s latest corrals all of that into maybe the most pressure-cooker setting he’s ever worked within: a luxurious space ship, filled with 5,000 guests and crew, that accidentally gets knocked off course. What’s supposed to be an eight-week cruise is suddenly looking like three years or longer, and the swanky space vacation starts to feel more like a prison sentence for just about everyone aboard.
Billie and the captain both make these faces a lot.
The characters in Avenue 5 include the people who’re ostensibly in charge: Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), Avenue 5's billionaire owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad), and, back on Earth, Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird), head of Judd Galaxy Mission Control. We also meet Judd’s second-in-command, Iris (Suzy Nakamura); the ship’s head of passenger relations, Matt Spencer (Zach Woods); Avenue 5 engineer Billie McEvoy (Being Human’s Lenora Crichlow); former astronaut turned wannabe ladies’ man Spike Williams (Star Trek: Voyager’s Ethan Phillips); and pushy passenger Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front). Even under the best of circumstances, these people aren’t going to be buddies, but eight weeks is a do-able amount of time in which to play nice until it’s over. After the disastrous “gravity flip” occurs in episode one, boundaries begin to crumble once everyone learns they’re going to be forced to be together for the next three-plus years.
Episode one’s other big event is the heavily foreshadowed reveal that Captain Clark, who speaks with an American accent but sounds awfully British when he’s muttering to himself, is pretending to be someone he’s not. And indeed, he’s not really a captain – he’s an actor, hired to lend theatrical gravitas to the mostly automated ship.
Judd, being Judd.
Even with snafu after snafu – including a giant one in this week’s episode, which we’ll discuss below the spoiler bar – Avenue 5 doesn’t really concern itself with the perils of space; though there have been a few deaths so far, they’ve all been played for laughs. Instead, it’s more focused on the nightmare of being trapped with some of the most obnoxious people you can imagine, like whiny man-baby Judd, who’s somehow a billionaire despite only having what appear to be terrible ideas; unctuous Matt, who’s so off-putting he’s actually really good at his job; and Karen, maybe the ultimate personification of the “can I speak to a manager” meme.
Most of the series takes place on the ship, but we do get some glimpses of what it’s like on Avenue 5's near-future Earth, 40-ish years from now: Google has folded, the Pacific Ocean is fully toxic, and summers are so hot that you can boil a fish in your backyard pond. You can see why people would take the opportunity to blast off the planet for a while. Going by the size of Judd’s operation, it’s implied that space-cations are now an accepted part of the culture, even to the point that – as the Avenue 5 “vigil” outside Mission Control, quite small even after it’s beefed up with actors hired by Judd and Iris, suggests – most people don’t give a crap about anyone who’s up in space.
Speaking of crap, that brings us to last week's episode, “Then Who Was That on the Ladder?”
Four episodes in, the breakdown of Avenue 5's self-contained society is surging ahead about as you’d expect. The passengers are restless, the rank-and-file staff has dropped all pretense of politeness, and everyone who knows how dire the situation really is just kind of remains in a high state of panic at all times. The most freaked-out is definitely Clark, who’s already having a tough time digesting that the suspiciously photogenic “bridge crew” he’s been working with all this time are actually actors, just like he is. In truth, a handful of scruffy engineers – including Billie – are running the show as best they can from a hidden control room.
The coping mechanism is, of course, to drink heavily – that is, until “Then Who Was That on the Ladder?”, which includes a sly Fyre Festival reference, reveals that there are actually so many more layers of comical horrors to excavate. Not long after we learn that the ship is protected from radiation using a “human faeces shield,” the shield inevitably springs a leak – and someone who’s totally unqualified (Clark, of course) is tapped to do a spacewalk to plug the hole. Also, it means that everyone on the ship, everyone watching the live feed on Earth, and of course everyone watching Avenue 5, is treated to the nauseating sight of gallons and gallons of poop just gushing out into space.
Star Trek: Picard would never go there. Even The Orville probably wouldn’t.
Most of the delights of Avenue 5 have been contained in its small asides – the production design is stuffed full of hilarious, blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em details – and its eccentric character moments. This week’s disaster feels like a turning point for the show to plunge full-on into absolute absurdity, efficiently taking Avenue 5's core concept of “shit happens” to rather literal extremes.
Avenue 5 airs Wednesdays at 10pm on Sky One. Episode five is airing tonight, and the rest are available to watch on Sky On Demand or Now TV.