'Avenue 5': TV Review

Alex Bailey/HBO
This comic 'Poseidon Adventure' takes a couple of episodes to lift off.
1/19/2020

Armando Iannucci returns to HBO with a Hugh Laurie-fronted futuristic comedy about a disaster in space.

Like a modern day Irwin Allen, Armando Iannucci is a crafter of disaster epics, utilizing profanity in place of everyday heroism.

What are Veep and The Thick of It if not slowly unfolding civic disasters, placing the ill-prepared or ill-intentioned against the grinding wheels of change? The same can be said of Iannucci's forays into features. One rarely watches his disasters with confidence that an apt solution is coming.

It's from this perspective that Iannucci's latest HBO offering, Avenue 5, is perhaps best approached — as a comic Poseidon Adventure in space. Such a perspective might benefit the first couple episodes, which don't stumble so much as they unfold and reveal themselves in ways that aren't always quite as funny as they should be, though things become more amusing after chaos starts ensuing.

Set in the somewhat distant future, Avenue 5 is largely set aboard the eponymous mammoth vessel enjoying an eight-week maiden voyage around Saturn. Under the reassuringly watchful eye of Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), the 5,000 passengers, including the ship's eccentric and wealthy owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad), are enjoying lavish buffets, record-breaking yoga classes and periodic astronomical wisdom delivered by the first Canadian to set foot on Mars (Ethan Phillips).

After a (hilarious) tragedy, the seemingly capable crew of Avenue 5 — among them engineer Billie (Lenora Crichlow), Judd's grouchy Girl Friday Iris (Suzy Nakamura) and singularly unhelpful customer relations head Matt (Zach Woods) — are forced to handle unruly passengers and the prospect of a journey that may stretch into years.

The Avenue 5 pilot, written by Iannucci with frequent collaborators Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, has an unexpected amount of explaining to do — much more than their typical fly-on-the-wall approach requires. It isn't a huge exposition dump, and details about this sci-fi world are given sparingly, but other than the gravity-defying calamity (directed with efficient flair by Iannucci), the opening 28 minutes boil down to rushed and surprisingly bland character-driven chatter so that the writers have expectations to reverse in subsequent episodes. Rewatching the pilot after the four episodes sent to critics, I was able to more easily pick up on how much the writers had been seeding and I got a few laughs. But my initial reaction was one of disappointment.

It's also a bit difficult to see what, exactly, Iannucci is satirizing here. The politics and commerce of the future are, if anything, underused as targets. Maybe it's the hospitality industry being mocked. Or maybe it's better to look at Avenue 5 as simply Iannucci having fun with a new and not very subtext-rich disaster scenario, resulting in something clever if not particularly smart.

As things get worse on Avenue 5, things get better for many of the actors starring in Avenue 5. Impeccably coiffed and seemingly returning to his flat House American accent, Laurie initially coasts on conveying Captain Clark's passive-aggressive charm, but as episodes advance and more of the character's backstory is revealed, it becomes a tremendously entertaining performance. Woods, always masterful at going from tightly wound to manically unspooled, and Crichlow raise the mirth to match the stress levels, as does the terrific Nikki Amuka-Bird as the head of mission control back on Earth. Gad is playing yet another of his manic man-children and he seems to be leaning hard on a funny haircut and garish tracksuits without much characterization to match beyond "blundering ineptitude," though he at least gets to share scenes with Nakamura, whose acerbic timing had never been put to better use.

The vacationers on Avenue 5 are present, if not always assets. I chuckled here and there at the coarse bickering between the estranged spouses played by the reliable Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair, but found less engagement in The Thick of It veteran Rebecca Front's Karen, a pushy passenger notable mostly for being the rare Iannucci character who prefers euphemisms to swearing.

As dire as the situation on the ship gets, cinematographer Eben Bolter keeps the proceedings bright and bathed in retro colors, while Simon Bowles' production design is full of curved arches and rounded edges, justifying the description of Avenue 5 as a flying dildo. The special effects are solid if not showy, not that anybody will be watching this show with the same demands as they might have of a new Star Trek.

Viewers will be watching for Iannucci's caustic prose and a top-tier cast and on those levels, Avenue 5 is a worthwhile journey, even if it doesn't blast off quite as fast as you might hope.

Cast: Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, Zach Woods, Rebecca Front, Suzy Nakamura, Lenora Crichlow, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ethan Phillips

Creator: Armando Iannucci

Premieres Sunday, January 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.