In science fiction, the future generally comes in one of two varieties: idealized or dystopian. But what if the world to come turns out to be very much like the present, a mixed bag full to bursting with joy, sorrow, innovation, hubris, funny jokes, toxic marriages, yoga, family obligations, ugly resort wear, the majesty of nature, rampant inequality, much-needed distractions, accidental death? What if the defining attribute of humankind isn’t goodness or evil but incompetence?
It’s an argument Armando Iannucci has been making for his entire career—not just in brilliant political satires like Veep, The Thick of It, In the Loop and 2017’s big-screen historical spoof The Death of Stalin, but also through three decades’ worth of collaboration with Steve Coogan on the chronicles of bumbling, parochial, not-entirely-translatable British media personality Alan Partridge. And it’s the presumption that connects everything the British writer and producer has done in the past to his surprising new HBO show Avenue 5, a sci-fi comedy set on a luxury “space cruise” to Saturn in the year 2060.
Premiering Jan. 19, Avenue 5 joins the titular ship midway through its eight-week journey, as couples clad in loud tropical patterns feast, fight, engage in organized leisure activities and gaze into the starry abyss through the vessel’s disconcertingly large windows. At the helm—but more often entertaining passengers over drinks—is Ryan Clark, a dashing captain played by a smartly cast Hugh Laurie. Also onboard is the craft’s owner, Herman Judd (Josh Gad, marrying tech-bro petulance with vulgar, Guy-Fieri-like bravado), who issues whiny demands from a Trumpian gilded office suite under the supervision of his exacting deputy Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura). If this were The Love Boat, Matt Spencer (Zach Woods, fresh off a hilarious run as the weirdly earnest Jared on Silicon Valley) would be its cruise director. (One of the show’s best recurring gags is a series of videos in which he promotes various events and amenities. “Do you love to drink?” he inquires in one, tray of beers in hand. “I know my dad did.”) He’s also a self-proclaimed nihilist who offers no comfort to his charges when things start to go bad.
And go bad they do. Without giving too much away, Avenue 5 opens with a technical mishap that just keeps snowballing, thrusting heaps of additional responsibility onto anxious engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow, a charming British actor who hasn’t had a role this rich since her stint as a ghost on Being Human ended in 2012) and threatening to extend the voyage by upwards of three years. It soon becomes clear that not everything on the ship is as top-shelf as it looks—Ryan included. Panic takes hold of passengers and crew alike, as Rav Mulcair (Luther alum Nikki Amuka-Bird) and her mission-control team struggle to manage both logistics and optics from Earth. Somehow, the most competent person onboard appears to be an officious middle-aged passenger named Karen (the wonderful Rebecca Front, from The Thick of It) who may or may not be a stowaway.
Though the plot moves a bit slowly in the beginning, that pace allows Iannucci to roll out plenty of other amusing characters, from a randy retired astronaut to the snobs at NASA to a remarkably pretty flight crew. Avenue 5 gets sharper with each of the four episodes sent to critics, which bodes well for what lies ahead, when the bulk of the world-building is done. It isn’t Veep, sure, but there are traces of Selina Meyer in Ryan; both are smug, two-faced charlatans entrusted with far more power than they deserve. The show also benefits from Iannucci’s dark, profane, literary sensibility. A maid folds an irritating couple’s (Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer) towel into the shape of an anus. (“The puckering’s beautiful,” Matt marvels.) A botched space burial results in the coffin endlessly orbiting the ship; later, a comedian pauses his stand-up set in an awkward gesture of respect as it floats past the window. While Iris talks in corporate truisms (“A problem is just a solution without a solution”), Matt can’t contain his excitement at hurtling toward the void: “This is fate, and it’s freestyling with us. This is like… jazz fate.”
Veep became the perfect satire for a particularly incompetent moment in American politics. Yet in many ways, Avenue 5 presents a bigger challenge for Iannucci and his writers. Their cast of characters is huge, every room on the vast spaceship they’ve dreamed up has its own function and vibe, they can’t rely on current pop-culture references for jokes and they have to imagine what Earth is like two generations on—a task that yields silly hairstyles and a few small, clever surprises. Iannucci may still be finding his space legs, but I, for one, would follow his sense of humor to the ends of the known universe.