Inside ‘Avenue 5’: The First Great Comedy of the 2020s Is a ‘Crushing Existential Nightmare’

Kevin Fallon
Alex Bailey/HBO
Alex Bailey/HBO

While researching their new HBO series Avenue 5, which takes place on a space cruise ship 40 years in the future, Armando Iannucci (creator of Veep and The Thick of It) and Hugh Laurie (the actor best known for House) spent time with the people from Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Scientists explained to them, with a casual, almost unsettling seriousness, that when planning a long-distance journey, like to Mars, for example, it is of the utmost importance that astronauts continue to produce fecal matter, as one of the best ways to protect from radiation poisoning while in outer space is to pack the walls of a spacecraft with human waste.

Iannucci and Laurie, two men hoping to create a comedy series at least somewhat rooted in fact, looked at each other with glee. Actual space science was serving them comedy on a silver platter.

“We sort of looked at each other and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a puncture?’” Iannucci recalls. “You know, because not only is there the comedy of just seeing a stream of shit flying out of the ship, but also the real danger that you’re going to die of space cancer if somebody doesn’t go out and sort that out.” Sort out the gushing pipeline of human waste. That science requires for actual space travel. Poop in space.

Avenue 5, which debuts Sunday on HBO, takes place on a massive spacecraft making its eight-week maiden cruise around Saturn, on which passengers can swan around in kaftans, take yoga classes, and luxuriate in spas while participating in a revolutionary mission through the solar system. Yes, after all the fetishizing about the future of space travel and the glamour that may come from the possibilities technology may provide, in the end we’re just going to use it to push off a shitty cruise in space.

When a gravitational hiccup violently sends everyone careening to one end of the ship, the Avenue 5 is knocked off its orbit. The eight-week cruise is now on track to last three and a half years. If you’ve ever seen how entitled travelers react when things beyond their control go wrong during their trips, imagine how that mindset presents itself with four more decades of narcissistic incubation and the stakes being an additional two years and eight months spent 1.02 billion miles from earth.

Laurie stars as the ship’s fearless captain, who turns out not to be a captain at all, but an actor meant to keep up appearances. Josh Gad is an Elizabeth Holmes, Billy McFarland-esque tech grifter whose company owns the ship. Zach Woods is a hapless customer service rep with no tact, while Suky Nakamura, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Lenora Crichlow all play the adults in the room—the people with the smarts to actually stave off certain disaster, mutiny, or both.

Meanwhile on the passenger side, there’s a couple (Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer) who thought a little cruise adventure might save their marriage, only now to be trapped stewing in their toxicity for what may be years. Appointing herself as a de facto voice of the aggrieved is the future’s version of the “I’d like to speak to the manager” woman, played by Rebecca Front. Her name is, of course, Karen.

(Iannucci explodes with laughter upon learning about the “Karen” meme. He had no idea when he named the character. “There must be some collective subconscious at work.”)

For fans of Veep or The Thick of It, it might be surprising, and maybe even confusing, to learn that the man responsible for some of the greatest political insights, satirizations, and deconstructions in modern television is making what seems to be a sci-fi comedy. “I don’t call it sci-fi,” Iannucci grins. “I call it a crushing existential nightmare. But with a light touch!”

You quickly learn that this sci-fi comedy/crushing existential nightmare has much to say about our current state of affairs as a society on the brink of a collective panic attack.

“I wouldn’t claim that Avenue 5 has reduced the entire human condition to a single half-hour comedy, because you wouldn’t believe that if I said it,” Laurie says, flashing a wry grin. “But what it has in common with Veep and The Thick of It is seeing how structures survive and what people are prepared to do to make it through the day when they’re under pressure.”

The subject matter may be different from those political comedies. “But it’s still one gigantic Stanford prison experiment,” Laurie continues. Iannucci is professor Philip Zimbardo in the metaphor, the man who investigated the psychological effects of perceived power by focusing in on prisoners and prison officers.

“He relishes putting people in stressful, compressed situations and seeing how will they survive, how will they struggle, who will go up, who will go down, how will they compete and make alliances with each other, and how long will the structure last before everything just gets ripped to pieces.”

On the one hand, there is the threat of utter doom and destruction as the change in course could have fatal consequences, a danger that is met in the ship’s executive suites with concern for shareholders more than for the affected travelers. On the other hand, in the face of life-changing circumstances, customers are still bitching about towel service and the restaurant being out of tiramisu—together, dual indictments of corporate cynicism in tandem with our vapid human instinct.

“Our anxieties seem to operate simultaneously on so many different levels,” Laurie says. “We have the ‘why are we here, what happens after we die?’ kind of questions. And we also have ‘why are the nuts so salty?’ questions.”

It’s as much a coping mechanism as anything else, Iannucci ventures. He remembers when he was working on his film The Death of Stalin, a historical comedy chronicling the power struggle following the death of Joseph Stalin, being struck by the reality that, facing the bleakest possibilities, people still find ways to get through the day. How the hell else would they get through the years?

“It was a low-level fear under Stalin,” he says. “You couldn’t be hyper, like, ‘I’m going to get shot at any minute,’ because you wouldn’t last. So you had to just get through the day thinking, ‘I might be shot today. I don’t know. But I’ve got to do the shopping.’”

Dark? Yes. Nihilistic. Of course. This is the man who brought you Veep, after all. Accurate to human behavior? Irrefutably.

“At the same time,” Laurie is quick to qualify, “one of the things that I think gives the show a sort of merry kind of optimism is that it at least postulates a future.”

He thinks about films like Blade Runner and its copycats, where things were so dystopian that audiences were left wondering if there would be a future at all.

“We may be starting to feel that now,” he continues. “You look at the footage of Australia on fire, and you wonder whether we’re going to be around [until the time Avenue 5 takes place]. This at least postulates the idea that we’re actually going to exist.” The space cruise awaits.

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