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Star Boors: Humanity Is Cruising For A Bruising In Sci-Fi Comedy 'Avenue 5'

Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) spends a lot of time looking aghast in HBO's <em>Avenue 5</em>.
Alex Bailey
Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) spends a lot of time looking aghast in HBO's Avenue 5.

Avenue 5 premieres on HBO Sunday, January 19th.

"A problem," decrees a character on HBO's sci-fi comedy series Avenue 5, "is just a solution without a solution."

The problem facing the crew and passengers of Avenue 5 — a massive space-cruise-ship in the not too distant future on its maiden 8-week cruise around Saturn — has to do with its trajectory.

Said trajectory ... is off. Way, way off, due to an accident that takes place in the opening minutes of the premiere. A solution is not forthcoming, given the crew's practiced facility at surrendering responsibility and shifting blame.

Which clues you in on what sets Avenue 5 apart from previous lost-in-space TV fare like Star Trek: Voyager, Farscape, The Lost Saucer, Far Out Space Nuts, and, not to put too fine a point on it, Lost in Space: its provenance.

It was created by the team behind the brilliantly sharp The Thick of It – Armando Iannucci (the creator and original showrunner of the sharply brilliant Veep), Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche. Of the four episodes made available to the press, Iannucci gets a "story by" credit on each, but a "teleplay by" credit on only the pilot, which is also the only episode he directed himself.

That it proves the weakest of the four, then, is fascinating, but maybe not entirely surprising. Given the sci-fi setting, the relatively large cast of crew members and passengers to introduce, and the plot machinations required to establish the series' catastrophic stakes, there's not much room, in a 30-minute pilot, for fleshing out the precise species of conflict at which Iannucci excels. In The Thick of It and Veep, he orchestrated long, musical fusillades of invective and verbal sparring matches festooned with lovingly foul language. But the first episode labors to find the light, quick comic timing necessary to make the dialogue seem effortless; there's a tendency to lunge at the jokes instead, which blunts their effect.

Even so, the Iannucci imprint is clear from the jump: In Avenue 5, humanity is not worth saving: fatuous, venal, cynical and grasping. Most people are as incompetent at their jobs as they are at dealing with other humans. It's the classic Thick of It/Veep view of the human race — but those series were set among government bureaucracies, and the consequences of such feckless nincompoopery were kept mostly abstract. The satiric punches of both series derived instead from their depictions of flailing public officials as consumed by the desire for power over policy. But on Avenue 5 — both show and ship — the situation is so grave that every screw-up comes with a body count.

In the early going, before we've come to know the show's characters, this combination — everyone's a buffoon, plus death-as-punchline — sours the show's comedic tone past mordant, past caustic, to bone-bleaching acid.

True, both The Thick of It and Veep were defined by a similar, searingly unsentimental (read: British) sensibility. But on both those shows, the characters stood to lose their jobs, not their lives. And the creators swiftly discovered discrete pairs of characters who may not have liked each other, but who at least arrived at a grudging mutual respect. It didn't soften those shows, but it made them seem like something more than an extended, sneering sketch.

The more Avenue 5 leans into (most of) its characters — and the actors who portray them — the more apt it is to achieve the tonal balance it so desperately needs.

Here's a handy rule of thumb: If a scene features one or more of the following characters interacting with one another, it's likely to work:

  • Hugh Laurie's determined-to-be-charming-at-any-cost ship captain, Ryan Clark. (Prepare for some hijinks involving the American accent employed so ... singularly ... on House, M.D.)
  • Suzy Nakamura's hyper-competent assistant Iris.
  • Leonora Crichlow's overmatched ship engineer Billie.
  • Nikki Amuka-Bird's Rav, head of Mission Control on Earth, struggling to keep it together.
  • Yet the more a given scene features Judd, the rich, dim-witted mogul/spoiled man-boy played by (wait for it!) Josh Gad, the more likely you'll be tempted to reach for the fast-forward button. It's not Gad's fault, entirely — he's been slotted into a one-note role and he plays that note, loudly and repeatedly. It's entirely possible he gets something more interesting to do later on, in the episodes not screened for critics. It's unlikely, but it's possible.

    That it takes Avenue 5 a while to find its footing makes sense, I suppose, given how often the ship's gravity keeps conking out. But there are promising signs — small moments amid the dutiful sci-fi bells and whistles — when the characters interact with one another long enough delineate themselves, allowing us to appreciate the problem that confronts them, and care enough to truly hope they find its solution.

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    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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