“Avenue 5” is technically science-fiction, but as many genres shows have proved, drawing a straight line from our reality to a hyperbolic future like the one of HBO’s new comedy is all too easy. Set 40 years in the future, it takes place on Avenue 5, a spaceship that is essentially a high stakes luxury cruise. It’s set to orbit around Saturn while offering typical amenities like spas, high-end restaurants and group yoga, all backgrounded by the starry cosmos. This being a comedy, though, things go quickly, ridiculously, horribly awry, shifting the cruise’s promised length of 8 weeks to an ominous “IDK, TBD!”
The series comes from the creative team behind the U.K. political comedy “The Thick of It” — including “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche — and accordingly finds material and objects of righteous ridicule in banal interactions and bureaucratic nonsense, even in space. The ship’s captain (Hugh Laurie) is bewildered and untested; its customer service representative (Zach Woods, perfectly cast) is enthusiastic but useless; billionaire manchild Judd (Josh Gad), who’s bankrolling the entire endeavor, requires constant babysitting lest one of his harebrained ideas quite literally sink the ship. They’re notably countered by a couple women who are blessed with the gift of basic competence: Judd’s fearsome righthand woman Iris (Suzy Nakamura) and exasperated mechanic Billie (Lenora Crichlow). Occasionally, we even get to see the technicians back on Earth trying to suss out the damage from afar, including a welcome turn from Nikki Amuka-Bird as the slowly panicking Rav.
It’s a sprawling ensemble even without the actual customers the largely hapless “Avenue 5” team are supposed to be serving, including a furious married couple hurtling towards divorce (Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair) and the personification of “I would like to speak to your manager” named, of course, Karen (Rebecca Front). Some of them, most notably Gad’s petulant Judd, are best in small doses. Others, like Laurie’s shapeshifting captain and his unexpected foil of Billie, get better and better the more we get to know them. (There’s also something brilliantly, purposefully pointed about the fact that the men in charge keep fumbling it, and the women getting things done are women of color while the white women make complaining their full-time jobs.)
The “Thick of It” team specializes in the kind of bratty banter that emerges between feckless people in power and/or the oblivious people they’re in charge of, so it’s no surprise that “Avenue 5” is at its best when its circumstances are at their worst. This works, for the most part. It doesn’t particularly matter that this show’s version of those characters are in space. The dynamics between them are deliberately the same as they might be if they were interacting at a “Veep” campaign rally, grounded in the recognizably petty reality of human beings just trying to grit their teeth through another dumb day of being alive. There aren’t as many memorable lines (or gleefully profane insults) as this creative team has been known for in the past, a disappointing development that will hopefully change as the show settles more into itself.
Soon enough, everyone on the ship is suffering from intense cabin fever — and as a show, “Avenue 5” could soon follow suit. After watching the four episodes provided to critics, it’s hard to know where the show might be going, and how much longer the ship could be stuck in space. (2 years? 6 months? Forever? All seem equally likely!) By the end of the fourth episode, I was itching to get outside the ship’s walls almost as much as its restless inhabitants. If “Avenue 5” wants to get more mileage out of its premise, it’ll have to find some newer gears within it for its excellent cast and intriguing characters to play with beyond pure frustration.
“Avenue 5” premieres Sunday, January 19 at 10 pm on HBO.