Avenue 5: 1.01 I Was Flying
Avenue 5, Armando Iannucci’s latest TV brainchild, promises a lot: a starry cast, much of the same creative DNA from his hits Veep and The Thick of It (including co-producers Will Smith, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell), as well as a plum starring role for Hugh Laurie. It’s also Iannucci’s first foray into the realm of science fiction (his BBC Two mockumentary Time Trumpet, set in the year 2031, has proved far too prescient to qualify as sci-fi).
In the pilot episode I Was Flying, we join the titular spaceship, a luxury liner, on a course to cruise around the rings of Saturn before returning to Earth. All is well: captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), a charming American, banters with his passengers and tries to avoid the ship’s abrasive owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad) and his executive Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura). But it’s not long before a mishap with the gravity simulator knocks the ship off its trajectory, and the eight-week trip is now estimated to last for three years. To make matters worse, the ship’s chief engineer is killed in a freak accident when the gravity is restored, leaving second engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) the only person with a chance of putting the ship back on course.
The production values, to be expected from an HBO series, are impressive. The look of Avenue 5 is immaculate: the main set is, appropriately enough, titanic, and there’s a stark divide between the ship’s gleaming, tacky meeting rooms and luxury suites (think the Enterprise crossed with Trump Tower) and the grungy, unvarnished work spaces in which the ship is actually maintained. Every effort has been made to make us believe that this is a working spaceship: even the 26-second comms delay between Avenue 5 and mission control back on Earth. Elsewhere, Iannucci’s sharp script nods to a very believable future: Captain Ryan addresses an assembled crowd as “ladies, gentlemen, and fluids”, while Kimura predicts “this may be the worst disaster since Google folded”.
In the panic which arises when the bad news breaks, the supporting cast get a chance to shine. Zach Woods (another Veep alum) is terrific as Matt Spencer, the worst holiday rep in the galaxy, leading an angry mob in a screaming session and reassuring one panicked customer that he is “trained to make sure that your body wash gets replenished, not to rectify the catastrophe of human existence”. His oscillations between blithe acceptance of the disaster and utter despair provide some of the funniest moments in the episode.
The always-brilliant Rebecca Front plays Karen, a name which hardly seems a coinpcidence, who finds her calling when the catastrophe provides her with ample opportunity to put herself at the centre of attention. Even Josh Gad, riffing on his unique talent for playing grating narcissists, is well-deployed here as the Branson-esque billionaire Judd. He’s funny, despite being the first person you would choose to blast out of an airlock in a crisis, and it will be interesting to see how his character develops (if at all) in future episodes. Meanwhile, Laurie's Clark isn't all he appears to be either...
Despite being ostensibly a comedy, Avenue 5 isn’t afraid to get dark. There’s little that can match the slowly dawning horror of one particular shot: the estimated journey time of the ship being updated on a screen, with the mission control team aghast. I’m eager to see just how far the show is willing to push the envelope: given Iannucci’s talent for finding the ugly side of human nature, I’d say the worst is yet to come.
Although this first episode has to do a lot of heavy lifting - introducing the core characters, allowing the disaster and its implications to unfold - it immediately plants its flag as something unique. On re-watching, it became clear that Avenue 5’s closest ancestors might be the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 1970s (e.g. The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno). The ingredients are all there: a disaster aboard a large vessel, a high body count, and a diverse cast of oddballs to bounce off each other. While Avenue 5 may be just the latest of Iannucci’s studies in blame-sharing, back-stabbing and incompetence, there’s plenty of novelty here.