Armando Iannucci, the brilliant mind behind “Veep” and “In the Loop,” returns to HBO this weekend with another comedy about the failures of leadership, this time with a sci-fi twist. Several “Veep” collaborators return, including Hugh Laurie, Andy Buckley and Zach Woods, in a show that often feels like a spoof of sci-fi franchises like “Star Trek” or “Battlestar Galactica,” if they were reimagined by the team behind “The Thick of It.” Fans of Iannucci’s razor sharp wit may be let down by a show that doesn’t have the laughs per minute of his last HBO Emmy juggernaut, but be patient and you’ll find that “Avenue 5” develops into its own bizarre creation, a commentary with memorable characters on how disaster makes actors of us all. I’m not sure how this plays out over the run of a series, but it will certainly be entertaining to watch it unfold.
You know how Elon Musk is often making promises about interstellar travel for the wealthy? Tired of trips to the Caribbean? Why not a trip to Mars? 40 years in the future, this dream is a reality, a trillion-dollar business for people like Herman Judd (Josh Gad), a gazillionaire whose ego far outweighs his intelligence. Judd is the figurehead behind the corporation that has pioneered what is basically a luxury cruise ship through the solar system, complete with lavish buffets, nightly entertainment, and the biggest yoga class in space. The captain of his ship is a rakish leader named Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), and he’s the perfect figurehead for an 8-week journey around Saturn.
A malfunction causes the Avenue 5 to go ever so slightly off course, and leads to the death of one of its leaders (and a few passengers). The problem is that “ever so slightly” in space terms means more than it does on Earth, and an 8-week cruise through the stars turns into a 3.5-year adventure in survival. At its best, “Avenue 5” is a study in how unforeseen events can equalize and reveal. Secrets can be held on an 8-week luxury cruise much more effectively than when panic starts to set in about supplies and just having to be with the same strangers for the next three years of your life. The dialogue doesn’t crackle like “Veep,” but there’s a cleverness to the plotting of “Avenue 5”—each episode seems to unleash a new problem which then alters the way these characters trust or distrust each other in new ways.
It’s an immensely watchable show once you get past the fact that it’s not going for punchlines as much as “Veep.” The comedy here is more situational, as Iannucci is again, in a sci-fi way, tearing down the façade of leadership, while also suggesting that the image-building we place on these things is the biggest problem. Clark is constantly being hailed for his rescue efforts on a previous ship (Avenue 3) and he points that it was the firefighters and sprinklers, not him. We make leaders out of people who fit our image of leaders; not the people who actually get things done. And all of those curtains fall when real disaster strikes. And yet Clark isn’t a bumbling idiot (that’s more Gad’s role here) like he would be in a lesser writer’s hands. He’s just one of many memorable characters floating around this increasingly tense tin can.
Unsurprisingly for “Veep” fans, the ensemble here is another major draw. Laurie is great, Gad modulates his sometimes annoying comedic sense to a nice level, and Woods nearly steals the show as a passenger liaison who seems to almost be enjoying the chaos around him. Leonora Crichlow gets the straightest role as the engineer who actually knows the most about what’s going on while Rebecca Front plays the passenger willing to make the most noise and find out the truth about their predicament.
At first, I wondered if there wasn’t a stronger film version of “Avenue 5” than the show given how plot-driven the premiere is, but it’s a program that improves as it goes on and settles into a groove. Episode three is particularly strong as Clark learns he’s not the only crew member with a secret and the actors all seem to settle into their roles. If the success of “Veep” is any indication, they could be on this ship for a while.
Four episodes screened for review.