Armando Ianucci's HBO comedy 'Avenue 5' is hopelessly lost in space
There is an ice cream company called Dippin' Dots that brands itself as "ice cream of the future."
It's fun to eat because it's a novelty—tiny little ice cream spheres that feel like a space dessert. But I always remember feeling like I never really had dessert after I finished a cup of it. The treat was fun while it lasted, but it wasn't particularly fulfilling and the concept of "ice cream of the future" was more exciting in concept than execution. After two episodes of HBO's newest space comedy, Avenue 5, I feel like I've had the TV-version of Dippin' Dots.
The problem with the Hugh Laurie-fronted comedy from Armando Iannucci, the mind behind Veep, is that it feels like a premise that never quite forms a narrative or tonal direction. Unlike past projects like Veep that skewer the political system through abysmally corrupt characters, Avenue 5 asks what happens when a crew of insufferable humans end up on a doomed space-cruise set in the future.
The answer to that is... I don't think it matters? The dialogue is reminiscent of Iannucci’s past projects and the characters are funny enough, but this space comedy offers no real reason to keep watching after each episode because it doesn't seem to know where it's going.
In its premiere episode, Avenue 5 sets viewers up in this crazy universe where people can pay to board a spaceship and cruise around the galaxy. The issue comes in when the ill-equipped Captain Ryan Clark (Laurie) learns that the ship's trajectory has gone off course. The ship only has supplies for a months-long journey, but this detour has set the ship back three years.
That is where the intrigue of Avenue 5 stops though because most mysteriously, no one seems that vexed by it. The dark comedy of Iannucci's work floats between comically flippant and unexpectedly hysterical, never landing on a specific mood. While a series like Veep would have smartly tackled the situation at hand with satirical punches, Avenue 5 stumbles around it, failing to grasp the gravity (or lack thereof) of being lost in space on a doomed mission, nor offering a narrative strong enough to keep the chaos interesting.
With that said, the push and pull of Iannucci and his writing team's story attempts to emulate the satirical tone Veep fans are used to. Laurie and Iannucci are a seemingly perfect duo, with Laurie's signature dry wit fueling the series. He's backed up by Josh Gad's smarmy tech-bro billionaire, Herman Judd. The two execute Iannucci's style to the best of their abilities, but it's hard to get past the fact that everyone seems vaguely cavalier about their impending deaths. Even tourists on the ship are less fearful than they are simply annoyed that this ship went off its designated course.
Another part of the snarl in Avenue 5 is that the satire doesn't feel particularly rooted in anything recognizable. On a ship of extremely wealthy people, the concept of a space-Titanic comes across more like a sketch than it does a full-fledged series, and after two episodes, the series still hasn't established what the game plan is.
Even for attempted satire, exchanging barbs and jokes may elicit a subtle laugh, but it also leaves the viewer asking, "So... are we just going to make half-baked dark jokes about this until the end?" And when the comedic in-fighting and bickering isn't even about finding a solution, how can the series expect its viewers to care one either?
Avenue 5 attempts an interesting concept, but it doesn't seem to ever find the tone that would fit best.
Seeing Laurie and Gad on screen is a lot of fun, but after any given episode, it feels like you can be done without feeling like you're going to miss too much after. Much like the titular ship in the series, Avenue 5 lost sight of where it was headed along the way. Unlike the privileged tourists on board, viewers don't have to stick around to see if the series can course correct.