This Avenue 5 review contains spoilers.
Avenue 5 Episode 2
“Fly safe. Fly true,” the mantra on the bridge of the Avenue 5 space ship, is a lie, forgery and irony wrapped in command indecision. The flight is hazardous and everything everyone thinks they know about what’s going on is based on rubber stamped memos no one bothered to send transcribed from minutes no one was taking. Avenue 5, episode 2, “And Then He’s Gonna Shoot Off…,” begins with Captain Ryan Clark, played by Hugh Laurie, attempting to give the bad news about recent changes in travel plans. It doesn’t go well. It barely goes at all because the most entitled of the guests aboard the space tourism vessel loses it at hello. “Don’t insult us,” Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front), resident rabble rouser and the self-proclaimed people’s choice, heckles, giving Avenue 5 the chance to add injury to insult.
No one actually gets hurt when second engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) reluctantly speaks on the crew’s behalf, but egos are bruised, expectations are lacerated and hopes lie hemorrhaging. The scene illustrates the frenetically acerbic comedy of Armando Iannucci economically. Things don’t get a chance to get worse before they’ve already gotten worse on Avenue 5, much like on Veep and the film The Death of Stalin. Usually this occurs because of mundane frustrations or flawed characteristics.
Before McEvoy goes off on her rampaging finale, she is told to speak clearer, move her mouth away from the microphone, dumb down what she’s saying into understandable English when the word no one understands is pretty basic stuff. Her exchange with the guests is the dialog equivalent to the physical comedy Lou Costello brought to the “My Bonnie” scene in the 1945 film The Naughty Nineties. Costello takes every cue to his delivery from Bud Abbott, who is telling stage workers how to hang a backdrop. He goes from his highest register to his lowest from all directions until he falls off stage.
While not as quick as Iannucci’s Veep, the show still economizes the joke before we see how much worse the situation is beyond the mere “long way around” explanation. Crichlow is a perfectly contained tempest in the teapot, trying to keep it together for an audience she wants nothing to do with. The ship lost direction when it fell off course after a gravity glitch took out the ship’s chief engineer, Joe. One of very few actually utilitarian members of the crew, his loss is keenly felt, not emotionally but because of the vacuum it exposes, including knowledge about the difference between a vacuum and gravity.
Everyone above Joe is pretty much useless. The owner of the company which launched Avenue 5, Herman Judd (Josh Gad), is more irritated over the time lapse in communications between earth and the ship than the situation at large. This is a running gag which is still able to make reprisals. Joe died trying for repair the irreparable transmission problem and now one of the first tasks on the to-do list is what to do with his body.
Everyone below Joe is problematic. Billie’s nemesis Cyrus (Neil Casey), an improviser and maverick, is introduced this episode. Arrogant and insolent, at least in his casual work attire, he comes off like the show’s troll, though he will probably wind up being Avenue 5‘s Jonas. He becomes less annoying to the captain after his numbers show a different trajectory and time frame but luckily he is still as annoying to Billie and the audience.
The show is full of surprises big and small. While we might not have guessed Iris (Suzy Nakamura) made sure there was always a coffin on hand in the event her boss died, it makes perfect sense that Herman would assume she is just waiting for him to do it. Iris is the Herman’s right hand, first line of defense and the only person on board who knows a problem is just a solution without a solution. It appears Iris lost her need for warm human contact when she had to row back to shore with the corpse of the only person who every “got” her: her grandfather. She was a little girl when he had a heart attack on a two-person boat trip, and it gave her a will of steel. She may ultimately save the passengers, crew, ship, and company which owns it, through sheer determination. She is the only person who can tell her boss to get it together. She is the one who keeps everyone around him in line to enable him to run recklessly through space, even if she can’t keep things running smoothly on earth.
The caffeine addicted head of ground control Rav (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is trying to work with NASA to find a better option than picking up survivors, and Herman appears to be doing everything in his power to stymie those attempts. The representative from NASA takes every slight personally and protects her computer password as if her life depends on it. The intra-galactic incident is as big as when the Pacific went toxic, and NASA believes the Judd Corporation should contribute financially to the rescue mission. Herman may not be sure if NASA is singular or plural, but he knows a shakedown when he sees one. The real acronym for the renowned and respected aeronautic establishment is “Not anymore, stupid assholes.” He photon-torpedoes his bridges long before he even thinks of crossing them.
Herman continues his denials as the losses become undeniable. He discounts personal injury lawsuits on the basis the passengers wouldn’t want to sue the guy who controls their oxygen supply, not that he wants to do that, but he does. Gad throws his whole body into Herman. Every thought that goes through his head whirls around under hair for a little bit and comes out the other side twisted by the combination of ego and a short attention span. Early in the episode Herman promises to return as an angry Jesus raining down blood and filth and terror on all who betrayed him. The passenger services liaison who enables the twist. “Classic Jesus,” Matt Spencer (Zach Woods) says, “you mess with his money and he fucks you right up.”
Spencer is a master of passive aggression, and he is an equal opportunity offender. He is just as infuriating to his company superiors as he is to the guests he is trying his best not to serve. He also shares Herman’s memory retention deficit. When Iris tells him to have some respect for the out-of-control CEO of the endeavor, Spencer remembers the first part but immediately forgets what she’s trying to tell him. He is just as cloyingly dismissive to the amateur solutions the passengers have. He wholeheartedly encourages Karen’s husband’s plans for survival, and even suggests tying bed sheets together in an attempt to escape the ship. He consoles Mia (Jessica St. Clair) and Doug (Kyle Bornheimer) over the fetid barfbag of a trip this is for them with neither irony nor solution. He still finds the time to butcher David Bowie’s “Starman” at Joe’s funeral.
The ceremonies for the burials-at-space moments begin awkwardly and end in tragedy. They are well-intentioned miscalculations with a fatal flaw beyond retired astronauts trying to hook up with the bereaved. The kicker is that it can all be blamed on the communication time-delay. This could have all been avoided if Captain Clark listened to his second engineer. Laurie and Crichlow are fun to watch together. They do as much with sidelong glances as with the script.
Avenue 5 consistently twists expectations. The one constant on the ship is that nothing is every good enough for anyone on it. Whether it’s the loudest and most informed passenger bemoaning how long it takes for the captain to correct her mistaken assumptions or how many music downloads it takes to play the ship’s lounge, no one quite gets what they want. The frustration echoes in the cold emptiness of space where no one can hear you laugh.
“And Then He’s Gonna Shoot Off” was directed by Natalie Bailey. The teleplay was written by Georgia Pritchett and Will Smith off a story by Armando Iannucci, Pritchett and Will Smith.
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.