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Disaster is still Armando Iannucci's sweet spot
HBO's Avenue 5, created by Armando Iannucci, isn't just a departure from the world of political nonsense that made Veep, In the Loop, and The Thick of It the works that will go on Iannucci's tombstone, it's a departure from the world itself: Avenue 5 is a sci-fi comedy set in space. But like the Washingtonian mishaps of Veep, one of the best shows of the last decade, no amount of gravity will keep Iannucci from focusing on what he finds funny, which is incompetence in the highest ranks of power.
But rather than set a trajectory for playing in that sandbox in the unknowns of space -- unexplored planets, aliens, whatever astrophysics are keeping us from being flung into the Sun -- Iannucci keeps things relatable in Avenue 5, taking shots at the luxury hospitality industry, failing upwards, and corporate bungling. It seems Iannucci was reading up on one of the many horrifying (and morbidly entertaining) cruise ship disasters that are becoming more and more frequent when inspiration struck him like a rolling suitcase knocking a cruise passenger unconscious during an unexpected swell. The titular Avenue 5 is a lumbering space cruise ship that's part of the Judd Corporation, a conglomerate that makes everything from light beer to track suits to poorly researched space vacationing, and things go very badly for everyone on board. And that's funny.
Setting Avenue 5 in the confines of a space cruise decades in the future creates a microcosm of the political environment of Veep; there's Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), who is kind of like the vice president but even less qualified than Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selena Meyer; there's Herman Judd (Josh Gad), the idiot billionaire CEO of the Judd Corporation, who flexes his influence like a commander in chief; there's a host of advisors, including head of customer relations Matt Spencer (Zach Woods), corporate liaison and second-in-command Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura), and engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow), who encompass the range of malcontents and sycophants elbowing their way through the White House; the 5,000 passengers, including Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer as a couple whose marriage is disintegrating and a real Karen in Karen (Rebecca Front), who double as the general public; and everyone still on Earth, who are like the rest of the world. (Most of Avenue 5 is set aboard the ship, but a small part of the show is set in Mission Control, where scientists communicate with the Avenue 5.) It's not a spoiler to say that things quickly reach DEFCON levels of trouble for the spaceship, cranking up the tension and allowing Iannucci to deliciously pit everyone against each other for our amusement.
But those looking for Veep in Space should probably just rewatch Veep in the dark. In the four episodes I watched, there are several structural similarities to Veep, most notably the large roster of characters that intersect and bounce off each other, but Veep's trademarks -- absolutely savage, profane verbal takedowns and tangible satire -- is taken down a few notches here and replaced with more serialized storytelling and theoretical situational humor (dead bodies and clouds of floating poop are big plot points in this comedy about places where no man has gone before). The F-words and snaps are still there, but they're less punchy. The back-and-forth remains but feels more scripted. Instead, character decisions and funny reveals -- let's just say the flashiness and luxuriousness of the Royal Caribbean in space isn't what it appears to be -- propel things forward, piling on the dire situation of the Avenue 5 and its passengers. What remains to be seen is how the bad things and bad leadership -- the engine of Avenue 5's humor -- can get worse (i.e. even funnier) as the reveals dry up. But four episodes in, there's plenty of joy in everyone's misery.
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While Avenue 5 isn't as good as Veep head-to-head in most categories, its strength is also its cast, and it's got a good one. Laurie's Ryan operates as the straight man on the precipice of losing his sh--, Gad is perfectly oblivious as a one-percenter who's never really worked a day in his life, Woods plays Silicon Valley's Jared all over again and no one should ever complain about that, St. Clair and Bornheimer are hilariously revolting as bickering spouses, and Ethan Phillips is a surprise as a former astronaut whose best days are behind him. Everyone is a delight in this, even if they don't have the same freeform off-the-cuff chemistry that Veep's cast did.
It wouldn't be wrong to say Iannucci is slightly better with what worked on Veep, but Avenue 5 is plenty funny if you can launch the Veep comparisons out of the airlock. (Besides, let's be fair here, can anything be as good as Veep?) With a strong cast and Iannucci's unpredictable sense of humor, there's real potential that Avenue 5 can go a long way.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Avenue 5 premieres Sunday, Jan. 19 at 10/9c on HBO.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)