Set 40 years in the future, Avenue 5 is named for a luxurious space cruise traveling the solar system with the perfectly bearded Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) as captain. It looks like everyone's in for the ideal eight-week vacation (if you like being stuck on a cruise, that is) until technical difficulties knock the ship off its route and Avenue 5 ends up stranded on the long way back to Earth from Saturn. The return trip will take years.
The new HBO comedy, which premieres Sunday, Jan. 19, introduces a future that seems wickedly and comically plausible and at the same time completely outrageous. It has a cast of diverse faces with plenty of comedic chops. Yet I kept feeling it wasn't quite what I was hoping for. It's possible my main problem with Avenue 5 is just that I was expecting to see a show more similar to Iannucci's Veep. Something like one more season of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her entourage of clowns' ineptitude.
In addition to both being comedies created by Iannucci for HBO, Veep and Avenue 5 share other DNA. They are both ensemble shows in which everyone seems to be terribly incompetent. The dialogue in both is so fast and witty you might miss half of the banter if you don't pay enough attention. Other jokes may escape you altogether (I always feel I should rewatch the episodes at least once). The camera tends to be handheld to better follow the characters around. And Laurie always has a solid performance in him. In Avenue 5, he mixes American and British accents skillfully and imbues his character with lots of fuzzy charm and reluctant charisma.
But this futuristic comedy feels much more like an acquired taste than Veep did. At least that's the impression I got after watching the first four episodes made available for critics.
Other than Laurie, the show is peppered with some other well-known funny performers. Zach Woods ( ) plays Matt, a head of passenger services who should never talk to other human beings. Josh Gad is Judd, the megalomaniac owner of Avenue 5 -- someone who describes himself as being the alpha and the beta, to top it off with an "I know so much, so much." Iris (Suzy Nakamura) is Judd's right hand, the kind of executive assistant who can come up with oxymorons like "a problem is just a solution without a solution." Then there's Billie (Lenora Crichlow), chief engineer of Avenue 5 and the only one who really knows how cataclysmic the cruise's incident may prove to be.
A few more episodes of the eight-episode season might end up exposing more details of the lives and idiosyncrasies of these characters and connecting me with them more. I can see myself not necessarily caring for captain Ryan, Billie and the others but laughing at and with them more than I initially did. Right now, the show still feels like a little bit too much work and not enough reward. HBO will release one half-hour episode per week as has been customary for the premium cable network.
Don't get me wrong, I did feel a little bit bad for most of the 5,000 humans on board the Avenue 5. So far the show hasn't touched on what might happen when food starts getting scarce aboard the cruise. But the planner (and eater) in me has been worried about it from the beginning. There's been a mention about the ship being out of tiramisu and that can only infer catastrophe.
One thing Avenue 5 does very well is make fun of a past that could actually be the near future. Iris describes the demise of Avenue 5 as "the biggest crisis since Google folded." There's a mention about the time the Pacific went toxic. "I don't want to go the same way as Richard Branson, fed to his own pigs on his private island," Judd quips when he realizes he could very well die in space. Although my favorite reference has been about an original Kindle containing a digital copy of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl. The device is kept as a sort of heirloom in Judd's massive room on Avenue 5, where he also treasures other pieces of memorabilia like the skulls of the four Beatles.
Something I would also like to see more of in Avenue 5 is the idea of what the future looks like, space tourism aside. The series suggests three-way marriages, the standard formula to address a room full of people as being "ladies, gentlemen and fluids" and phones for your wrist. But there's still room for much more in this new Iannucci brand of space-age humor.
Originally published Jan. 17.