In Space, No One Can Hear You Ask for a Refund on “Avenue 5”

Avenue 5 Alex Bailey/HBO

Armando Iannucci’s followup to Veep takes on the vagaries of corporate culture in deep space.

Science fiction often imagines a future filled with alien races, crazy technology, and thrilling adventures against a backdrop of intergalactic conflict. However, showrunner Armando Iannucci’s latest HBO comedy Avenue 5 offers up a much more mundane and realistic prophecy.

This future vision takes place on the titular vessel, basically a cruise ship that sails across the Milky Way as opposed to the Carribean. After a malfunction causes the ship to go off course, the eight-week tour turns into a three-and-a-half-year voyage. It’s up to Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie, House) to keep up the guests’ morale while dealing with the cruise’s oblivious owner, Herman Judd (Josh Gad, Frozen II).

Iannucci’s last show for HBO,Veep, satirized the artifice of the American political landscape and the unworthiness of those who inhabit it. Here, Iannucci switches his critique from politics to corporate culture, and the result is just as scathing and hilarious as his previous show. 

At its core, Avenue 5 explores how our brand-obsessed culture prefers narrative and the appearance of capability over actual competence. The ship is covered with messages from Herman, food, and beverages feature his branding (including “Judd Light” beer), and even the guests wear clothes emblazoned with his logo. However, while the signs say “you’re in Judd hands”, Herman displays a lack of care about his guests, stating that his shareholders are his number one priority, and balking at the idea of saving his guests due to costs. He also shows a complete lack of knowledge about his business and is more often than not a hindrance to the operation of the ship than a help. 

Alex Bailey/HBO

Herman’s lack of business acumen extends to his hiring of Ryan as captain; while his reputation portrays him as brave, the reality is that he was hired as a comforting presence since the ship is automated and doesn’t require a captain to steer. The captain is more of a mascot than a crew member, and yet Herman is completely unaware of this fact, or the fact that Ryan is actually English and just uses an American accent because guests prefer it. 

In contrast to the incompetent “front of house” crew members, the employees who don’t interact with the public as much are portrayed much more competently. Ship engineer, Billie (Lenora Crichlow, Deception) and chief-of-staff Iris (Suzy Nakamura) are shown to be the only sane people on board but have to kowtow to Herman. Likewise, the head of mission control, Rav (Nikki Amuka-Bird, The Laundromat), was almost successful at convincing NASA to assist with a rescue mission until Herman insults the organization. 

While corporate incompetence is the main butt of the joke, the guests don’t escape mockery either. The main foil for Ryan and Billie, aside from Herman, is a customer named (predictably) Karen (Rebecca Front, The Aeronauts). While it’s understandable that she’s upset by the situation, she inserts herself into staff meetings, monopolizes the Q&A sessions, and spreads rumors to other guests. Front is phenomenal, although her ability to capture the aggressive entitlement of your classic Karen-type may be a little too real for anyone with customer service experience. 

While corporate incompetence is the main butt of the joke, the guests don’t escape mockery either.

The rest of the cast also gives stellar (pun intended) performances. Laurie can flawlessly switch from a comforting American captain to a British bundle of nerves in a second, and you can’t help but feel for the man as he’s thrust into a situation he wasn’t hired for. While we’ve seen Gad’s style of self-interested and incompetent boss before, he still manages to be a hilarious scene-stealer. Crichlow acts as the perfect straight woman against the more ridiculous characters, with Billie trying to go along with the rest of the ship’s schemes while trying to convince them it’s a bad idea. 

The humor in Avenue 5 tends to lean more towards the dry side. Most of the gags come from quick verbal quips or funny signage. However, some of the humor can go into dark and surreal places. One particularly morbid running gag involves the guests and crew members who died during the ship malfunction and whose bodies are now orbiting the ship after being ejected into space. It’s dark humor, but it manages to still be funny. 

Another big source of humor includes a subplot where customer relations officer Matt (Zach Woods, The Angry Birds Movie 2) tries to help repair the failing marriage between two guests. In a cast already filled with colorful characters, Matt is the most bizarre. Despite being hired to be the face of the company, Matt shows the guests little regard and empathy, either dismissing their complaints or giving nonsensical answers. His incompetence and bizarre behavior are particularly surreal and Woods always plays his lanky, awkward alienness to fascinating effect. 

While we don’t have a full picture of this season’s plotline, the four episodes given to critics for review can be viewed independently, provided you know the premise of the show. While the main plot of the ship trying to get home and ground control trying to assist while fending off the media is a consistent throughline, the individual plots of the episodes feel self-contained. Obviously, this may change as the season progresses, but since the show will be released weekly, it seems likely it will be less focused on an overarching plot. 

In good sci-fi, the futuristic setting is just the set dressing to explore grander contemporary truths. Despite its humor and the sleekness of the production design, Avenue 5 is the first great work of dystopian fiction of the 2020s. It’s hinted that the Earth has gone through ecological disasters; the threats to the cast don’t come from alien invasions or totalitarian regimes, they come from a corporation that harms people out of incompetence or greed. It may be funny, but unfortunately, it’s funny because it’s true.  

Avenue 5 sets out from spacedock and makes the long trek to HBO on January 19th.

Avenue 5 Trailer:

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