This Avenue 5 review contains spoilers.
Avenue 5 Episode 4
In the opening montage of Avenue 5, episode 4, ” Wait a Minute, Then Who Was That on the Ladder?,” we see astronaut Spike Martin (Ethan Phillips), kibitzing on the bridge. He’s trying to look at the dials and sensor readers which the crew are expertly fingering, especially the hand model who was born for the job. Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) is doing his best to keep the astronaut away for the faux equipment because he’s the only one on board who might be able to actually read what they say.
The irony is this skill could find a solution to clean up the captain’s mess, except the astronaut is also ill-equipped to do it. Spike Martin was the first Canadian to land on Mars. He’s masturbated to constellations, Gemini, the twins. He has peculiarly muscular follicles which can support a pony tail. But he was hired for the same reason the captain was hired, and everyone on the bridge was hired. He looks the part. It’s just sad that everyone can see through him, from wannabe divorcees like Mia (Jessica St. Clair) to don’t-wanna-be-astronauts like Zeke, the knowledgeable Passenger Child. The kid is smart enough to see though everyone as he shuttles Spike clear of any soft landing.
One of the great running spoofs on Avenue 5 is how it presents the future of journalism. Early in the episode an on-air television anchor reports on the space tourist catastrophe, ending with “Thank fuck I’m not on that ship.” Later, after seeing news crawls like “new species of woolly mammoth cloned” and “president killed at summit,” we see the top story: “Ryan Clark Has Massive Balls, says Pope.”
Hoping to avoid Richard Branson’s fate (being fed to his own pigs on his private island), Herman Judd (Josh Gad) throws a get-to-know-your-favorite-mogul get-together. Iris (Suzy Nakamura) limits the gatherings for 19 guests at a time, an odd number to accommodate for ugly guests who will be showing up alone. The head of the Judd Corporation adheres to normal-person protocol, he tells people he is speaking CEO-talk, counts aloud to three to make sure his hugs are appropriate but remain creepy. Herman shows his very special guests a prized possession he keeps in his cabin: the skulls of all four Beatles, signed, not by any members of the band, but by Herman Judd himself. One of the skulls is probably Mickey Dolenz anyway.
Newly anointed passenger liaison Karen (Rebecca Front) immediately pushes her advantage at the party. Because of his genius-ADD, Herman doesn’t even know who she is, just that she knows how to deal with people. Well, not people which you can tell that by the way her husband is still evolving, but passengers. Karen, who is only a passenger herself, inserts herself in the inner circle. She tells the other guests to stay out of the “restricted conversational area” even as she discusses the great divide between staff and passengers.
Matt (Zach Woods), the head of passenger services, really shouldn’t be allowed to talk to people under almost circumstance. He believes in them too much. He is an instigator. He unleashes the inner Frank (Andy Buckley) while Karen isn’t looking. He tortures Mia and Doug (Kyle Bornheimer) with word clouds, formed from the most horrific things they said to each other during an impromptu marriage counseling. The torture is you can add words, but you can’t take them away. But the strangely estranged couple also inadvertently stumble on a catastrophe to come when they almost the last serving of tiramisu for the entire trip.
I’m not sure whether this is a problem or the next step in comedy evolution, but we don’t care about the majority of the characters trapped on the Avenue 5. The characters on Armando Iannucci‘s Veep were horrible creatures formed out of the swamps of Washington, but we liked them. We cared about them. On Avenue 5, we are surrounded by people so unpleasant even Matt would rather be alone without them. And Matt hates being alone. Besides Ira, we’re given nothing to hang on to emotionally. She’s the coldest, least emotionally vulnerable executive cut-throat, but she’s the only character who gave us a backstory which elicits empathy and compassion. As for the rest of them: Will they live? Will they die? Will the food run out? Will they eat each other?
Well we may begin to care for the luckless 5,000 when they start eyeing each other for midnight snacks, if it goes that way. Granted, Avenue 5 is playing a long game and has the luxury of filling in the characters at their leisure. But, Iannucci may have found a new low form of comedy to mine, annoying people with no redeeming values. We’ve had our Jerry Seinfelds, Larry Davids, Tony Sopranos and our Walter Whites. They’re horrible people who we cared about deeply. Selina Meyers pushed narcissistic self-advancement to uncomfortable levels, especially when seen through her daughter Catherine, but we loved the shit out of her.
Second Engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) is the most relatable character, and Captain Ryan is the most likeable. We relate to her because ultimately she’s the only one know what’s going on. We like him because Laurie, using an entirely different comedic arsenal, is pulling fast ones. The very idea of Captain Ryan hanging out and getting drunk with the real crew is frightening. We know it will lead to no good, especially as he seems to on their good sides. But the consequences come from offside. There is one scene where Captain Ryan fully gets the smart kid. The kid does something so smooth, it is entirely impressive. You can see the respect grown on Laurie’s face, but he does it almost peripherally. It comes from the side. It’s not just that he doesn’t give the kid the look we normally associate with appreciation. It is appreciation. He likes it as an art form, an educational tool, and a personally heroic gesture, with a funny twist. Zeke is the best chance the ship has for getting home. Children are our future. Look for those in the second season. It will be the ultimate statement of cynicism.
The most blatant cynicism happens on earth, where a vigil is being held for the victims of the space catastrophe. One of those victims is the Judd Corporation, one of the bereaved points out before laying out all the legal codicils why NASA should follow international space treaties. Too bad he didn’t say it in Klingon. Rav (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is horrified to learn the people at the vigil are actors. This is actually more plainly obvious than it may appear. Everyone in and around the Judd Corporation are actors. No one knows what they’re doing. They usually learn their lines, but the shit hits the fan when they improvise.
Avenue 5 indulges in some pretty intelligent toilet humor this episode. When the bright kid Zeke first says that poop is what keeps the ship safe from the sun’s radiation, all the other kids laugh, but it turns out to be true. All of the Judd Corporation ships are fitted with what they call a “wet suit,” a ring of human excrement which is kind of like sunscreen with a 10,000 SPF. Iannucci’s Veep was probably the most scatological show in TV history, exploring scatology like it was a college major. Captain Clark actually has to live up to his nickname, “Mr. Wetsuit,” and face the waste head on. At least we know Ryan is in contact with Billie before me makes his excremental excursion. The last time she talked someone though a spacewalk they wound up impaled on their own screwdriver. I hope Ryan knows his plunger from his elbow.
Next week’s episode promises to open with a shit storm. If things don’t work out, at least there will be a Captain Ryan sports arena or fake ski slope.
“Wait a Minute, Then Who Was That on the Ladder” was directed by Natalie Bailey. The teleplay was written by Peter Fellows and Ian Martin off a story by Armando Iannucci, Fellows and Ian Martin.
Avenue 5‘s “Wait a Minute, Then Who Was That on the Ladder” aired on Feb. 9, 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.