Streaming on: Disney + Hotsar
Armando Iannucci specialises in comedies about incompetent people who struggle to deal with omnishambles of their own making. From the ministers in The Thick of It to the American Vice President’s office in Veep to even the inner circle of the Politburo of the USSR in The Death of Stalin, the central theme in Iannucci’s funniest works is always that the people in charge really don’t know what’s going on.
His latest venture, Avenue 5 is no different, except that the setting is, ahem, out of this world. It’s an undisclosed time in the distant-ish future, climate change has destroyed the Pacific Ocean and the moon is now a prison colony. The titular Avenue 5 is a cruise spaceship on an eight-week cruise around Saturn. On the ship are the owner, Hermann Judd (Josh Gad), his assistant Iris (Suzy Nakamura), passenger services head Matt (Zach Woods), engineer Billie (Lenora Crichlow) and the handsome, all-American captain (“We’re all heroes on this ship”) Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), at the helm of a state-of-the-art bridge. So far, so picture-perfect.
Of course, things soon begin to go horribly, hilariously wrong. Joe, the first engineer and the real captain of the ship, is impaled by his own screwdriver while trying to fix the thirty-second lag in communications from the earth. That means that the ship missed the crucial moment to harness Titan’s gravitational pull, and an eight-week voyage will now take three years. Billie, the second engineer, soon discovers that not only is Captain Ryan Clark not a real captain (he was only hired to look reassuring, apparently), he’s also British. Hermann Judd is really an oversized baby, screaming for his assistant (“Iris!”) anytime things go even slightly wrong. Matt, the ship’s nihilistic passenger services officer is unhelpful at best and “nuancing” passengers to death at worst. Even the crew on that perfect bridge are – ah – not what they seem to be.
And that’s even before we get to the passengers. Karen (Rebecca Front) is an aggressive, entitled passenger who insists on the best of everything, while her husband Frank (Andy Buckley) is affable and boring. Mia and Doug are trying to sort out their marriage, but all they do is fight loudly about the affairs they had with other people. Spike, the former astronaut who once masturbated to Gemini, is only here for the sex and the drinks and in the hope that people think he knows what he’s doing, while Jordan, the ship’s comedian, is almost painfully unfunny. Obviously, the ship is a PR disaster, leading to some hilarious scenes as Rav, Judd Enterprises’ Mission Control Head, begs NASA for funds to save the ship, even as protestors gather around her office.
In a stroke of genius, Iannucci has the cast playing slightly worse versions of their most iconic roles. Zach Woods’ Matt is Gabe from The Office, if Gabe came to terms with how awful his corporate minion job was and turned nihilistic, while Karen’s husband Frank is an affable but ultimately ineffectual David Wallace. Karen is an ever so slightly more self-absorbed, socially unaware and unpleasant version of Nicola Murray from The Thick of It, too concerned with her own place on the ship to think about the consequences of her actions. And Hugh Laurie, with his piercing blue eyes and hypermobile eyebrows, plays a balding British guy masquerading as an American – Dr. House, if you will, if Dr. House also lost his superhuman diagnostic abilities and was also really a bit of a fraud.
Put them all together, add in some more quirky characters, and you find yourself with a side-splitting combination of absurd visual effects and some hilarious one-liners. The halfway home party will go on as planned, even if it’s really a 1/146th party, because “it was true when we said it, like marriage vows.” Hermann Judd promises Ryan Clark that it will all be ok, but “if for some reason it doesn’t work out I’m going to name a sports center or artificial ski slope after you.”
There is a gag involving the ship’s wet suit, a laser show and the face of a former Pope in a somewhat unexpected location. There is copious swearing (except from Karen, who tries not to with lines like “effed with a CB,” where the CB stands for cheese baguette), matched with an equal quantity of passive aggression (“I’m not completely unskilled as an actor, I’m actually a hand model.”)
The show ends on a cliffhanger, so it can be renewed for Season 2, because of course we need a Season 2. Don’t watch Avenue 5 if you want a cheerful caper where the heroes come out victorious (that’s what Star Wars is for). But dark humour and nasty people falling over themselves? As always, Iannucci is your man.