Avenue 5, the new show from The Thick of It and Veep genius Armando Iannucci, veers off-course after an ambitious launch, writes Sam Brooks
Armando Iannucci has proven himself as one of the great satirists of our age. First making his name with Alan Partridge and then The Thick Of It (a takedown of British politics that was as funny as it was absolutely correct) before making an international splash with the three-round punch of In the Loop, Veep, and The Death of Stalin, Iannucci has made some of the most prescient comedies of our age. His work is characterised by a pitch-perfect ear for language, a joke-per-heartbeat pace and a dark honesty that at times verges on brutality. But the thing that marks him as one of our best satirists is that he’s not just funny, he’s right.
Avenue 5 is the latest from Iannucci, and his first television project in a few years after dipping out of Veep halfway through its run. Rather than the world of politics, it’s set in the far-flung future where rich people are able to go on cruise ships around the solar system. One such cruise spaceship is Avenue 5, helmed by Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie, sporting an intentionally bad American accent that references his House one). Early on in the pilot, things go majorly wrong and the eight-week luxury round-trip cruise turns into a three-year odyssey to get back home. And to make matters worse, Ryan Clark isn’t even a real space captain – he’s just someone who happened to be at the right tragedy at the right time and was labelled a hero as a result. Things, as they tend to do in the greatest comedies and in Iannucci’s work in particular, get much, much worse.
Whereas Iannucci’s best-known work has dealt with world politics, be it Britain, the US or the Soviet Union, Avenue 5 draws on science fiction tropes, mercilessly tearing them apart. This isn’t the awkward-cute realm of Red Dwarf, though; while the setting might be a departure from Iannucci’s earlier work, the savagery is not. A recurring joke, which only gets funnier, is the time-delay between messages from the cruise ship to Earth – a riff on the scientifically implausible cross-universe communication that goes on in Star Trek and pretty much every piece of science fiction. Thankfully, the new material doesn’t dull Iannucci’s savagery as he draws as much comedy out of the mindbogglingly bureaucratic incompetence that exists in space as he did from the political milieu. The stakes may be different and it might be less ‘real’ than his other work, but it feels no less relevant than anything he’s done before.
The show draws on a few actors from Iannucci’s previous work, most notably Rebecca Front (The Thick Of It) as the quintessential talk-to-the-manager Karen (literally a Karen) and Zach Woods (Veep) as Matt, the cheerfully awkward head of customer relations. However, the best surprises are actually from newcomers to his work, most notably Suzy Nakamura as the deadpan, aggrieved Iris who nails every single punchline she’s given. I’ll be saving her withering kill shot delivery of “I don’t understand the nature of what you are” in my back pocket for a good long while. Josh Gad also makes a strong impression as the idiotic owner of the cruise ship, finally getting out of the snowman-shaped spectre of Frozen’s Olaf.
Whereas Iannucci’s other shows began with a tight core cast and slowly added characters, Avenue 5 is sprawling right from the start. This makes sense given that it is largely set on a spaceship, with a few cuts to what’s happening down on Earth. It’s hard to gradually introduce new characters when your show is set in the middle of space with no way of getting onto or off the ship. Luckily, there isn’t a weak link in the entire cast, and I’d go so far to say that this may be the most heavy-hitting group of actors to come together for an Iannucci show (at least from the outset). Even when the show sags a bit, the cast reliably keeps it up.
That large cast marks one of the stranger issues with Avenue 5, which is its ambition. Concept aside, it’s not trying anything that Veep and The Thick Of It hasn’t achieved already, especially towards the end of their runs. The difference is that Avenue 5 is trying to go big right from the start. It wants the large cast, it wants the rich world full of in-jokes and call-backs, and most crucially, it wants the ability to go dark and get real.
Much of the brilliance of Iannucci’s work is not just the comedy, but the slow, unfurling realisation for both characters and audience that all this staggering incompetence has a horrible effect on someone, somewhere down the line. I’m thinking of moments like the end of In the Loop when people finally shut up, slow down and realise that their actions have led to two countries being committed to war. Most of the time in his work this is seeded early on and slowly, beautifully unravels. But Avenue 5 tries to seed these moments in right from the start. In the third episode, a coffin floats gently past in space while the resident cruise ship stand-up does his set. It’s a moment that aims at a melancholy that isn’t just tonally jarring but feels unearned. While the audience knows the situation and the dire stakes, we haven’t had time to invest in it and the people rather than just laughing at and, occasionally, hating them.
Avenue 5 is brilliantly funny and delightfully savage, there was never any question of that. Even when Iannucci isn’t delivering top tier work he’s still doing it better than anybody else in the game. Even if one joke falls flat, there’s at least three more coming in the next half-minute that will make up for it. Iannucci’s genius comes from the fact that he’s funny and right, but right now the show lacks the charm and purpose that makes us care about it. His show ends up an unfortunate metaphor for its concept: an ambitious endeavour that veers off course and needs the attention of its captain to bring it home safely. Given the fate of most of Iannucci’s characters, I doubt the titular ship will get back to earth unscathed, but I’ve got faith that Avenue 5 will, before long, reach the brilliance that Iannucci so regularly achieves.
Avenue 5 starts tonight on SOHO2 at 8pm and is available to stream on NEON.
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