This Avenue 5 review contains spoilers.
Avenue 5 Episode 1
Avenue 5, episode 1, “I was Flying,” opens with a beautifully rendered establishing shot of the space tourist vessel the series is named after. It is stylishly aerodynamic, like a fine cigar-shaped UFO with delicate curves and a flamboyantly dark exterior which is the antithesis of the sparkly white USS Enterprise on Star Trek. It then cuts to the command station, where the picture-perfect Captain Ryan Clark, played by Hugh Laurie, is hosting the “Bridge Experience,” a meet-the-crew event where space tourists get to wear captain’s hats and push thrusters on their cosmic cruise. Clark runs a crew so efficiently rendered as to make the whole thing seem bland as an educational Disney ride.
“Fly safe, fly true,” the skipper encourages and every member of his crew repeats it back to him, each one taking an individual word. We almost wonder if space tourism is kind of a Carnival Cruise cult, but no, they are just that well-oiled a machine. What could go wrong? The trip is designed for luxury and is already celebrating minor victories in the history intragalactic space flight. Although this is the maiden voyage, the ship already set a record on the biggest yoga class in the icy cold of space. The series comes from Armando Iannucci, who created the HBO‘s comedy Veep. But if you’re looking for a replacement to the savage political satire of presidential politics, it’s not quite in the same orbit. Veep was brutal and occasionally unhinged in its cynicism. Avenue 5 is a comedy of errors wrapped inside a comedy of manners.
The series is funny, but not on the laughs-per-minute scale of Veep, and it isn’t as focused on what it is mocking. Mannerisms occasionally take the place of the truly acerbic wit of Iannucci’s last HBO series. The owner of the Avenue 5 joy ride is billionaire entrepreneur Herman Judd (Josh Gad), who has no perceptible attention span. The first time we see him he’s just come up with “eight weeks of great ideas in 11 minutes.” He is a self-proclaimed genius enabled by his ego-affirming senior advisor Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura). She is his fixer. What she can’t fix, she fires. What she can’t fire, she freeze-dries with glacially demeaning appraisals delivered with chilling precision. The writing is clever and sharp, and she has some of the most cutting lines.
Avenue 5 is set about 40 years in the future. Orbital cruise vacations around the solar system are a new industry. The crew expects to put their guests up for an eight week vacation and are at their most gracious, which deliciously doesn’t live up to the promised standards. Zach Woods (The Office, Silicon Valley) plays Matt Spencer, the head of passenger services. The first time we see him he is taking care of a minor complaint about the video feed on a guest’s room’s portal and he treats it with minor importance. He does his least to either fix the problem or alleviate the discomfort the broken monitor causes them. Even the little promotional spots he makes for guest services puts the onus on the customer. “Come to the Judd Over Easy Breakfast Buffet,” we hear him invite over the monitors, “if you’re not completely satisfied, you’re wrong.” He will come into his own when the solution to another minor inconvenience causes a major catastrophe to everyone onboard and anyone who bought stock in the company on earth.
Because the ship is out in space, there is a long delay when those aboard communicate with the home planet. The problem can’t be fixed, but the head engineer, Joe, walks in space to pretend to get better reception. While he’s out there the ship encounters a gravity flip and everything yanks them off course into a three year trajectory. The incident is spectacular, visually referencing Irwin Allen’s 1972 disaster movie classic The Poseidon Adventure. Passengers and crew are tossed around like bean bag rag dolls. The ship’s soft play area is transformed into a plushy bouncy room of death. A child goes missing leaving nothing but a captain’s hat. The hot stones in the massage room become airborne projectiles. Herman Judd, as a kind of Elon Musk-inspired exploiter of science, is the only person on board who has a good experience. “Did you see that,” he exclaims when gravity is restored. “I was flying.”
Overworked and running on nothing but coffee, Rav Mulcair, dryly played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, heads the Judd Mission Control on Earth. She keeps the families of the tourists up to date with the goings on in space. She likes order, consistency and protocol, so when the ship flips, she exhibits superhuman powers of multitasking.
Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) is second engineer. After Joe’s spacewalk excursion impales him on his screwdriver, she is the one who has to break the news to the captain the ship is off course. Hugh Laurie usually infuses his characters with the gravitas of dour competence. We get the first glimpse he’s not what he seems when he can’t get it through his head that the impact of 5,000 passengers slamming against the walls of a vehicle running on the tender propulsion of gravitational magnetism might have an effect on the schedule. As he’s trying to get his head around the turn of events, the steadfast captain staggers and stammers and it sounds like British-born Laurie temporarily forgets the American accent he was hired to play. He didn’t, and the problem is far worse than we imagine.
Karen Kelly, played by Rebecca Front, technically a stowaway because she weaseled her way into her sister’s non-transferable ticket, is an ambitious buttinski who feels entirely entitled to privileged information and treatment. She demands, in the name of all the passengers, to know what is going on at all times and in all places. We hate her immediately and love doing it. We would be thrilled to have her on our side when a crisis becomes a cover-up. She’s obviously not on anyone’s side but her own, but she could convince us we’re thrilled.
One thing Avenue 5 has in abundance is unexpected twists. By the middle of the episode the ship takes on its own moon, Joe, the engineer with a screwdriver sticking out of his chest. He circles the ship a few times in a frightening reminder of the lethal situation. The trajectory is only knocked off 0.21 degrees. This doesn’t sound so bad coming from the mouth of the reasonable-sounding Judd Mission Control chief, but only because she puts the zero in front of the point. This is a reasonable summary of the premise of the series, everything is merely far worse than it appears and it only appeared to be the worst disaster since Google folded. It is, as the ineffective guest services head says, more than fate, it is jazz fate, free-styling into the jaws of annihilation. You can be scared, if you like. Or not. Whatever.
Avenue 5 premiered Sunday, Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.
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