There are many surprises contained within Avenue 5, HBO’s new sci-fi comedy about a space cruise to Saturn that goes awry. Some of these are good, and it would ruin many of the show’s jokes to reveal them here. But the biggest surprise is a disappointing one: that Veep creator Armando Ianucci’s first TV series since he left behind Selina Meyer is kind of an unwieldy mess. The good surprises may eventually solve the bad one, but it’s hard to tell based on the four episodes provided for review.
Hugh Laurie plays Ryan Clark, the smooth and dashing captain of the Avenue 5, revered for his heroism during a fire on an earlier space luxury liner. The ship is owned by Herman Judd (Josh Gad), a spoiled, obliviously stupid billionaire who needs handler Iris (Suzy Nakamura) to save him and everyone around him from all of his terrible ideas. Over the course of the first episode, we meet other crew members, like nihilistic customer-service rep Matt (Zach Woods), retired astronaut Spike (Ethan Phillips), and engineer Billie (Lenora Crichlow), as well as a handful of key passengers, including toxic couple Doug and Mia (Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair), and Karen (Rebecca Front), a woman accustomed to bullying her way into the best deal possible. And we periodically go back to Earth where the harried Rav (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is running the privatized Mission Control.
Everything is going as smoothly as is possible with Judd around, until the ship suffers a malfunction, various people and things are broken, and the crew’s ability to fix anything is quickly brought into question. But the precise ways in which the crew turn out to be unqualified for the task at hand take a while to reveal themselves. And until that point, Avenue 5 largely consists of a bunch of broad cartoon characters yelling at each other, for the most part without the creative profanity that’s long been Iannucci’s signature. (People do curse a lot, but the flair tends to come more from the delivery than the language itself, like when Mia screams at Doug that he can find something “at the bottom of the swimming pool on Deck Fuck You!”)
Judd in particular is a figure from whom a little goes the long way to Saturn, if not out past Uranus and Pluto. And much of the early comedy spins out of his swaggering incompetence, particularly a labored running gag about how long it takes transmissions to go back and forth between the ship and Mission Control. But even an impeccably cast character like Matt runs out of steam before long, because none of them seem to have been fully thought through. Catastrophes tend to build in a more frantic style than in Iannucci’s past series, perhaps to show off the impressive production design and special effects involved in putting Hugh Laurie in space.
The process in the early going induces far more angst than laughter, until … well, what turns out to be fun about Avenue 5 comes almost entirely from the revelation of what is really happening, and why. So the less said — other than that Hugh Laurie remains a treasure of multiple nations (and multiple accents), that Lenora Crichlow makes a fine down-to-earth foil for him, and that I hope Jessica St. Clair, like Woods and Laurie before her, becomes part of Iannucci’s traveling repertory company — the better.
Comedies take time to reach their full potential, even ones from brilliant creators like Iannucci. Veep arguably didn’t come into its own until its second season (when Selina became more crucially involved in her president’s administration, and Ben and Kent were added as additional foils for her). The way Avenue 5‘s mysteries gradually unfold makes it hard to suggest waiting for a key episode down the line. (The fourth installment is by far the best, but it also depends on having seen how the captain gets to the emotional place he’s in.) This means the show will require patience — more than one might have hoped for from Iannucci’s reunion with HBO (he left Veep after Season Four), but about right for many series from lesser mortals.
“Avenue 5” debuts January 19th on HBO.