Hugh Laurie stars in HBO's silly-smart space comedy from Veep creator Armando Iannucci.
After spending years performing comedic vivisection on the American political system with Veep, creator Armando Iannucci is back on HBO with Avenue 5. The well-cast space farce — starring Hugh Laurie as the captain of an interplanetary cruise ship — is not in the same satirical league as its earthbound predecessor, but it delivers above-average laughs by taking the “hell is other people” conceit and boomeranging it across the universe.
Set 40 years in the future, Avenue 5 follows Ryan Clark (Laurie), the charming and avuncular captain of the titular space vessel, which is several weeks into its two-month cruise around Saturn. Much like an ocean liner, the Avenue 5 offers customers a surfeit of food options and endless organized fun, and Ryan’s job mostly involves strolling through the corridors and making small talk with the passengers. After a sudden, gravity-related mishap knocks the ship years off course, Ryan and his colleagues — including head of customer relations Matt Spencer (Zach Woods), the cruise line’s billionaire owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad), and engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) — are tasked with keeping hundreds of space tourists calm while coming to terms with their own hermetically-sealed nightmare.
Suffering through this getaway-turned-hostage situation are miserable marrieds Doug and Mia (the always-entertaining Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair), as well as the demanding Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front), who relentlessly hectors the Avenue 5 crew on behalf of her fellow passengers. (The Office’s Andy Buckley is delightful as Karen’s diffident husband Frank, a guy whose idea of living on the edge involves taking out a bridge loan.)
Based on the four episodes made available for review, Avenue 5 isn’t so much a space comedy as it is a droll exploration of a character-revealing crisis. Though the intergalactic setting allows for zero-gravity gags and a running joke about the two-minute lag time that plagues every satellite call to Earth, Iannucci seems more interested in putting those aboard Avenue 5 through their existential paces. Woods, a master of both affable and devastating deadpan, is once again brilliant as the ship’s chipper customer service liaison. A self-described nihilist, Matt is actually giddy over the emergency — it’s both a sinister cosmic joke and an excuse to stop pretending that he cares about all those petty passenger grievances. (“I am trained to make sure your body wash gets replenished, not to rectify the catastrophe of human existence,” he tells them.)
It isn’t long before Ryan’s bonafides as a capable leader are called into question, and it’s fun to see Laurie play a man whose bravado actually masks an inner swarm of insecurities. As the petulant, self-indulgent billionaire Herman Judd, Gad works harder than his bleach-blonde comedy wig for every laugh, though he does calm down a bit as the episodes progress. Suzy Nakamura balances out Gad’s surplus energy as Iris, the Judd corporation’s brusque and efficient fixer.
Coming right on the heels of Veep, one of the best shows of the past decade, Avenue 5 is almost inevitably a bit of a disappointment. The show feels like a funnier spiritual sibling of Other Space, Paul Feig’s cult sci-fi comedy; it even stars Space’s Neil Casey as Spencer, a cocky, cargo shorts-wearing engineer who helps Billie keep the ship running. But putting aside any expectations for another serving of Iannucci’s savage satire, Avenue 5 is still a sharply-written comedy with a strong cast and an enjoyable mix of highbrow punchlines, broad physical comedy, and silly sight gags, one involving a radiation shield of human excrement. And if there’s anyone who can navigate viewers through a s—storm, it’s Hugh Laurie. Grade: B
Avenue 5 premieres Sunday, Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. on HBO.