SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A CHAOTIC JOURNEY INTO THE FARTHEST REACHES OF HUMANITY … AND SPACE …
When we think of venturing into space, those of us not heavily influenced by endless tales of aggressive aliens and Event Horizon-ish supernatural events anyway, we tend to think of it as an idealistic journey in the mold of Kirk and Picard into the great and beneficial unknown.
We don’t think in terms of coffins and a magnificently lit-up cloud of literal crap circling a luxurious spaceliner, or of fake captains and bridge view and people more concerned with looking after themselves than pulling together to survive a potentially cataclysmic event.
But that is precisely what we do get in the Armando Iannucci-created HBO-issued Avenue 5, a comedy that is far more Keystone Cops than it is slick Star Trek, and winningly so.
With a comedic ferocity softened by deeply-flawed comical characters and some witty oneliners and wry observations about humanity’s capacity for doing the absolute worst when the very best is called for, Avenue 5 strips away all the golden idealism that swirled around people’s perceptions of space and the opportunities if offered back in the heady days of the ’60s and give it a thoroughly disillusioned postmodern vibe.
Not always perfectly, of course, at least in the first few episodes where pacing and characterisation is patchy, and the show can’t decide if it wants to be DARK, like REALLY DARK – it gets there in episode 8, “This is Physically Hurting Me”, and the results are genuinely shocking and emotionally hard-hitting as hell – or light and silly, but when it gets right, and it does increasingly as season 1, it absolutely nails the train wreck collision between spacey ideals and grimy reality.
Avenue 5 is set on a spaceliner that it packed to the gills with rich, privileged people, or those who would like to be rich and privileged, on an eight-week tour of the solar system which is meant, in the way of all good travel pitches, to be the adventure of a lifetime.
But a sudden loss of gravity and the death of the ship’s chief engineer turns this two-month luxury jaunt into a three-and-a-half-year marathon home, a ridiculous lengthening of the short, fun holiday everyone had planned, that by the end of episode 9, “Eight Arms But No Hands”, has turned into eight years.
Kind of makes the great return-home delays in Gilligan’s Island seem kinda small and barely noticeable, right?
Certainly, as the true import of their predicament becomes clear, not everyone embraces the whole all-for-one-and-one-for-all vibe, choosing instead to worry about how it will affect them which if you know anything about getting out of sticky situations isn’t entirely helpful.
But it is very, very human, and much as he did in The Thick of It and Veep, Iannucci dives deep down into the darkest recesses of our shared humanity to explore the fact that how we should react and how we actually react are two entirely different things.
As explorations into the flawed default setting of humanity go, it is incisive, starkly realistic, and as a result, hilarious at points, unsettling at others, and as we see in episode 8, starkly troubling, which is pretty the holy trio of reactions that govern a sane person’s reaction to pretty much anything their fellow citizens get up to.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has, sadly, amply demonstrated, while we would like to think everyone would rally in a time of crisis and selfish concerns for the greater good, the reality is that doesn’t happen as often as it does, a fact of life that galls engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) who is for all intents and purposes, about the only sane and grounded person on Avenue 5 (which is the name of the ship as well as the show).
A whip-smart young woman with a pithy turn of phrase, that stands her in good stead in a succession of maddening scenarios – think the turd shield that encircles the ship and blocks radiation, erupting or having to teach someone to pilot a ship in three years rather than five – Billie is the grounded every person of the show, the one who points out the sheer, utterly predictable madness of the chaos taking place around her.
She has a lot to deal with from a fake captain, Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), to a pretend bridge crew – they are photogenic actors who rely on the real engineers and technies literally below decks to keep them looking believable – to angry, mouth passengers like Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front), who ends up on the inside in a bid to keep the peace between passengers and crew, the idiosyncratic Head of Customer Relations (Matt Spencer, played with weird hilarity by Zach Woods who fully realises the nutjobbery potential of his character from Silicon Valley), and the owner of the spaceliner, clueless gazillionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad) and his co-owner/executive assistant Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura).
Phew! That’s a lot of wacky flawed humanity doing its thing!
And that is precisely the joy and pleasure of Avenue 5.
While no one particularly likes their shortcomings and failures being pointed out to them, we are all prone to being petty, selfish and stuffing up and that isn’t likely to change “in the future” which is the indeterminate period of time in which the show is set, giving the show fertile ground in which to tell its excoriating tale.
As noted, it doesn’t necessarily deliver quite as you’d expect it to; while the premise from which it draws may be abundantly fertile, Avenue 5 sometimes lacks those killer 1-2 hits that Iannucci’s comedies typical have in abundance.
All the building blocks are there in brilliantly-realised characters, snappy dialogue and an ever-escalating sense of threat mixed in with the ridiculous but to begin with, Avenue 5 only hits the marks only 50% of the time.
That’s enough to make it entertaining but not sufficient to mark as an unmissable classic; having said that, as season 1 progresses, a number of elements coalesce nicely as characters develop relationships and the show takes the time to explore the humanity of all the main characters so they go from quip-heavy cardboard cutouts to genuinely-engaging, sometimes poignantly expressed, three-dimensional human beings.
While it may not perfectly hit the comedy bullseye, it gets a damn sight closer than most sitcoms, neatly balancing the absurd and the dark, the hilarious and the emotive in ways that will quite genuinely having you most in the space of a single scene from laugh out loud funny to seeringly emotionally evocative.
It’s a clever show that builds and builds on its strengths throughout season 1 – presumably it did well enough to garner a second season which was confirmed in February this year while the first season was still screening in weekly installments – with enough compelling humour, sense of the ridiculous and willingness to skewer humanity’s flaws and foibles to make watching it more than worth your time and for you to give thanks to Pope John Paul II that you are safely earthbound and not stuck on a ship for eight years with people who are fun to watch but who would be a nightmare to be trapped with because honestly, they are just like us.