In “Avenue 5,” the new science-fiction comedy from the creator of “Veep,” a waylaid interplanetary pleasure cruise becomes a vehicle for social satire and existential gripe.
Some aficionados of Armando Iannucci—the creator of sturdy political farces including “Veep,” “The Thick of It,” and “The Death of Stalin”—will interpret his new science-fiction comedy as another statement on lunacy in the practice of power and suasion. The show, “Avenue 5,” on HBO, is christened after a spacecraft captained by one Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie). Forty years hence—sometime after “the Pacific went toxic,” in the show’s imagining of our collective destiny—five thousand earthlings board this luxury liner for an eight-week sightseeing cruise to the outer solar system. About eight minutes into the pilot, as the ship prepares to round a Saturnal moon, a ghostly malfunction forces the vessel off course. Initial projections determine that the trip home will take three years. “Avenue 5,” the series, is the tale of a fateful trip that was supposed to be a fun thing.
The vessel itself is like a ship of state inanely navigating a pitiless vacuum. Its curvilinear interiors ooze with consumerist neo-futurism, gilded and streamlined, spaces to associate with the Starship Enterprise, the Apple Store, the T.W.A. Flight Center, and the infantilizing floating Xanadu of “WALL-E,” not to mention the Pacific Princess of Aaron Spelling’s “The Love Boat.” The visual style, like the deadpan absurdism of the performances, achieves a tone that is somehow dry and campy at once. The looks and lines exaggerate the contours of contemporary life and inform the show’s shape as a social satire and an existential gripe.
No one is really in charge here; the systemic farce of this society runs itself. The crisis reveals the captain to be a fragile man who has advanced beyond his abilities as a charmer with a good haircut. He is not, like Laurie’s Bertie Wooster, a straight-up twit, but more like an empty suit with a heavy soul. He is willing to set aside his pride and rely on his chief engineer (Lenora Crichlow), but he cannot escape his foolishness. Their boss, the owner, is aboard, and the man in charge of the capital—Herman Judd, played by Josh Gad—exhibits the grandiose bluster of a tech mogul, the garish amorality of any given zillionaire, and many exotic forms of buffoonery; he is, at best, an uncomprehending child in velour playclothes. Judd’s chief consigliere, Iris Kimura (played by Suzy Nakamura), is a meritocrat epitomizing the honed skill and soulless striving of the managerial class. Triumphant in the belief that one calamity, in an escalating series of them, has been mitigated, she pumps her fist and cheers, “We kill problems like they’re babies.”
If the baby-killing line is to make any sense, it is as an invocation of Jonathan Swift, one among many florid indications that Iannucci and his co-writers are on a sort of meta-rhetorical spree. Characters spend a lot of recycled air critiquing one another’s diction, complaining about tone, policing shades of connotation, getting huffy about “jargon,” measuring the gestation of pregnant pauses, and generally tracing one another’s figures of speech. One underling approaches the captain on the bridge while apologizing, saying, “Sir, I hate to interrupt the protracted metaphor. . . .” Another describes Judd’s incompetence by fuming, “The best analogy I can think of is he’s like an idiot in charge of a spaceship. But that is not an analogy—that is just a fact.” Here’s one passenger’s ill-fated attempt at cocktail-party small talk: “No weather in space, right? Makes it hard to talk about the weather, which I’m kind of illustrating.”
The show generates a good deal of screwball energy with these constant scrambles to its own verbal surface, which variously evokes “Airplane!” and Pirandello. In terms of the plot, the most overt and important such moment occurs, near the end of the pilot, when the captain’s accent slips from its anchor in General American into something disconcertingly Oxonian, a moment presaging Clark’s confrontation with the stability of reality itself. In terms of tone, the most aggressive and intriguing sparks of textual energy emanate from Matt Spencer (Zach Woods), Avenue 5’s head of customer relations. Spencer is introduced as a talking head exhorting consumption from a screen above a buffet table. “If you’re not completely satisfied, you’re wrong,” he says. Spencer is a fool, a radical imp, something of a trickster, definitely a key annotator of the text. There’s an excellent tension between his supposed profession as a nerve-calming concierge and his nihilistic view of the human condition. The character’s absurdism aligns with the authorial voice, which is not just humorously morbid but merrily macabre, as when Spencer wraps up a funeral oration by describing existence as “random, pointless, without redeeming value.” Spencer’s pushiest customer is one of those ask-for-the-manager social types known as a Karen (played by Rebecca Front); if the fact that this character literally is named Karen strikes you as either too clever or else somewhat dumb, then this is not the show for you. “Avenue 5” is distinguished by a high-low sensibility in which poop jokes are about waste and entropy and fatal pollution but also, foremost, about tons of poop, the sight of which lightens the mood.