TV: Avenue 5 (Seasons 1 & 2)

Given the pedigree—a series led by Armando Iannucci, with Hugh Laurie in the lead—Avenue 5 should have really worked. Instead, it only sort of does, proof (if any were needed) that even great writers aren’t automatically equipped to write science fiction. This comedy takes place on the eponymous spaceship, a luxury cruiser helmed by dashing captain Ryan Clark (Laurie) and financed by out-of-touch billionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad). When an accident throws the ship off its trajectory, its eight-week schedule suddenly bloats to three years, throwing the ship into chaos—and exposing the fact that Clark isn’t an actual captain, but an actor portraying one. The ship is mostly automated, but things start going disastrously wrong, and since the only competent engineer died in the accident, it’s up to Clark and the bickering incompetents surrounding him to keep everything together.

Interestingly, the premise of Avenue 5 is almost identical to that of exisential Swedish science fiction poem “Aniara,” which later became a 2018 film wherein an off-course cruise ship becomes a metaphor for humanity’s reckless short-sightedness. Avenue 5 seems to have a similar mission: using its isolated society as a scathing microcosm of human cruelty and incompetence. So far, so Iannucci, and at times it is outrageously funny, especially when the insults—somehow both absurd and eloquent—are flying. But unlike Veep, which excels thanks to ensemble chemistry and razor-sharp focus on its political targets, Avenue 5 only shines in fits and starts. Part of it is the generic nature of its characters, who—outside of Laurie and the always brilliant Zach Woods (as Matt, the ship’s nihilistic customer relations man)—are only as good as their individual lines. Meanwhile, the satire and the science fiction don’t always cooperate; the space-travel elements, relied on solely to generate conflict, are distractingly unconvincing. In the end, these complaints seem rather harsh for a show clearly relishing its inherent silliness. It does deliver a handful of unforgettable comic setpieces, and Iannucci’s usual scathing critique of society’s certifiable mass stupidity is occasionally in fine form. But given the promising set-up, Avenue 5 doesn’t amount to more than an interesting failure.

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