A cruise-ship in outer space is readying for an election. Candidates are identified with cheers of reckless optimism and rejected just as quickly. “Vote for me,” says one, ”and I promise you I will use proportionate force when necessary.” Then, an addendum: “And by no means am I ruling out ‘disproportionate’ or ‘unnecessary.’” The gloves are clearly off, and this maelstrom of incompetent contenders — with a fictional character leading the polls — shows there may be, as one character describes “too much democracy, like 5th Century Athens.”
What would be the answer to that? Someone suggests that what the cruise-ship really needs is “a benign dictator.” At this point two passengers who walk by the conversation feel the craft move unsteadily. “Did the ship just lurch to the right?” asks one.
One of the most relentlessly clever shows out there, Avenue 5 (Disney+ Hotstar) tells the story of a cruise-ship in space that has found itself knocked perilously off its original trajectory: it is now stuck in space for eight years — with supplies for a few weeks. Set 40 years in the future, the scenario was always absurd, which led to a wonderfully Douglas Adams-y first season but now, with there emerging bleak possibilities including “a passenger pogrom”, creator Armando Iannucci, the ace British satirist behind The Thick Of It, Veep, The Death Of Stalin and In The Loop, brings some of his own trademark political lampoonery to the front. And it is glorious.
America, for instance, is controlled not only by the President Of The United States (POTUS) but by the entity called TOTOPOTUS, The Office of The Other President Of The United States, an all-powerful and decisive corporate organisation which describes itself as “a constellation of America’s brightest legacy CEOs,” featuring the tech world’s nepo-babies: young heirs to the Bezos, Zuckerberg and Musk fortunes, all sharing the power to shoot things down from space.
“Heil me,” says Captain Ryan Clark, an actor who has been playing a charismatic ship captain — and who is now being treated as the almighty hero (or villain) of the piece. Played by the fantastic Hugh Laurie, as an Englishman who pretends to be American and keeps flipping accents, Captain Ryan tries his hardest to abdicate moral and official responsibility but heavy lies the head that wears the toupee. Knowing too well that he shouldn’t be in charge, he is unwilling to defend himself, . “You belong in the museum of depressed British fucking assholes,” a character accuses. “That is my favourite museum,” agrees Clark. “Why is that your favourite museum?” asks the surprised insult-er. “Because it’s quiet,” explains Clark.
The cast is spectacular — Suzy Nakamura is a highlight as Iris, a former assistant who takes alarmingly well to the abuse of power, Josh Gad is a treat as Judd, the owner whose name is on the ship but its a good thing that it rhymes with ‘mud,’ and Zach Woods is flat-out superb as Matt, the head of customer relations who has strangely awakened ideologies and the subtlety of a suicide-bomber — but the true star of Avenue 5 is the writing. Some lines are stratospherically good. “You are both so spineless,” exclaims a bitter character. “The sex must be amazing.”
When the first season of Avenue 5 came out in early 2020, we hadn’t yet faced the pandemic — so it felt mildly amusing to laugh at this group of people stuck helplessly on board a spaceship making video-calls with near and dear ones. Now, with the lockdown behind us, we are better equipped to relate to these shipbound passengers who are forced to make not only their own entertainment but their own food, and the satire feels pointier and more immediate. It also brings home how apocalyptic everyday life — and headlines — have gotten.
And, of course, what ridiculous morons we have in charge. Iannucci’s strong-suit is to point out just how unfit all people in positions of power are for their jobs, and here we see people dither indecisively between “mass death or selective death.” The spacecraft is split into self-serving cliques, over on earth TOTOPOTUS has their own priorities, and the media has been replaced by an interactive talk-show that looks like a hyperactive (and quick to react) Twitter feed. (Elon Musk would be proud — perhaps of all of it?)
Meanwhile mass audiences of earth are following the unfolding outer space catastrophe via a fictional show about the ship that is not only giving them cinematic license and cheesy lines, but allowing those really in charge to pre-empt what is really going to happen to the ship — seeing as some of them know where the story is headed. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Spaceballs in that disconcerting way that suggests how we may all be inside of a Mel Brooks movie, not merely laughing at it.
Avenue 5 is fast, riotously funny, a bit cruel and often delightfully silly. At one point a character, convinced of his impending doom, suggests that his situation — where he’s left in charge of a newborn baby — is like one of those “old-timey comedies.” Except, he realises, there may possibly be a missile hurtling his way. “So more like a dramedy,” he corrects, cooing to the baby, “a dramedy.” That, in essence, may be the question. Figuring out what genre we’re in may be the actual point of life, the universe, and everything.
Streaming tip of the week
Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells, has been widely hailed as one of the best films of 2022 and it is out now on MUBI. A crushingly poignant story of a father and daughter out on vacation at a Turkish resort, the film is tender, memorable and quietly devastating.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.