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'Avenue 5': The Douglas Adams-iest show on TV

Armando Iannucci of 'Veep' and 'The Death of Stalin' is back with a new show, about a cruiseship in outer space that's knocked off course

Hugh Laurie in Armando Iannucci’s new comedy series, ‘Avenue 5’.
Hugh Laurie in Armando Iannucci’s new comedy series, ‘Avenue 5’.

Once in a while, a line of dialogue swerves in such unexpectedly thrilling fashion that the listener needs half a moment to catch up, a slip between the line and the laugh, like the caption of a New Yorker cartoon where the initial befuddlement is part of the charm. In HBO’s new comedy Avenue 5—set on a cruise ship in space—deceptively clever lines come at us rapidly: “There may be some more bad news," an astronaut says, “or, as I am learning to call it, news." “You know, sleeping on the floor is not as comfy as dogs make it look," says a passenger adjusting to a catastrophe.

I was forced to pause Avenue 5 (streaming in India on Hotstar) in order to laugh suitably hard after the head of customer relations tried to assuage a passenger whose son had been called a pig: “To the Chinese," he begins, “which is most people, pigs represent wealth and hard work." It’s a clever angle for any practitioner of spin, and in the middle lies the dazzlement: “which is most people." That is an absolute masterwork, as absurd as it is accurate.

The way these words go one way only to pirouette into something else entirely, the way they blindside the listener with brilliance, reminds me of the legendary Douglas Adams, the writer who created the iconic BBC radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, later expanded into “a trilogy of five novels". The H2G2 novels are massively fun, but the radio show remains the purest, least-distilled Adams-iest work. Listening to Adams’ sleight of sentences is more satisfying even than reading them—which is saying an awful lot. In Life, The Universe And Everything, Adams explains how to fly: “The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties."

Armando Iannucci deftly keeps “missing" the obvious in order to soar. The superhero writer—creator of such astonishing shows and films as The Thick Of It, I’m Alan Partridge, In The Loop, The Death Of Stalin and Veep—is best known for satirizing incompetence, frequently at the highest levels of authority. Avenue 5 tells the story of a cruise ship in outer space that has been knocked off course (partly due to a yoga class) and now faces a new trajectory of several years. Typical to Iannucci, this comedy is about liars, buffoons and pretenders, all making it up as they go along, but something about space has brought out Iannucci’s innate Adams-iness, and he has embraced both the madness and the Mad Magazine-ness of the premise. It is entirely possible, for instance, to imagine this show’s Captain Ryan Clark echoing Adams’ Ford Prefect: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so."

Then again, this captain would say anything he’s told. He isn’t a real captain, you see. Played by the marvellous Hugh Laurie, Clark is leader of the pretenders, an actor hired to look reassuringly valiant for a ship that steers itself. He walks around patting children on the head and greeting people in triplicate till all hell breaks loose, and, as his mask slips, so does his accent. Clark is an Englishman pretending to be American, and as he tries ineptly to keep track of who knows the truth, he keeps flipping accents, sometimes even mid-sentence: One minute he sounds like an apoplectic Bertie Wooster adrift in a Jeeves-less galaxy, the next he’s Dr House, rolling his like he was raised on Westerns. As he nervously explains the ship’s fate to the passengers, he requests that “everybody stay calm and pay attention to my words, and not my tone". Could there be a clearer parallel to big, friendly letters that say “Don’t Panic"?

Herman Judd, the implausibly haired billionaire with his name emblazoned across the ship, is more scared of Clark’s foreignness (he calls him “Captain Not-America") than Clark’s lack of knowledge. There are obvious maniac-at-the-wheel parallels to be drawn with world leaders, but, played by Josh Gad, there is an odd likability to this childish fool who collects skulls belonging to The Beatles. “They are all signed," he boasts, “Not by them, obviously. That would be impossible. I signed them." The fact that we vaguely care for, or even pity, this obnoxious character speaks to the heart in Iannucci’s work—a heart that thumped even through his most ruthless Veep seasons, and was mostly missing in the insult-machine seasons after his departure.

A Donald Trump analogy would have been too easy. Instead, as the hijinks continue on board, we are gradually served revelations about the world the ship is sailing through, letting us piece together a vision of this weird future, where there are two presidents of America, one of whom appears to be an Alexa-like automaton, and where 2024 is remembered by a passenger as the year the fish in their lake boiled. In a parallel with the actor-captain, taxis on Earth drive themselves while cabbies read novels. A reference is made to “The Huawei Wars". This may not be the darkest timeline, but it does feel like those in the past—which is to say, us, right now—need to have done more. “I think everything will be okay if we just stick together," says the ship’s optimistic (and real) engineer. “Worked for every extinct species in history," replies Captain Clark.

The cast is predictably brilliant. Lenora Crichlow is great as the ship’s engineer, Billie, the hero who never gets the credit, and Nikki Amura-Bird flails about fantastically as Rav, the head of mission control back on Earth. Rebecca Front, who played MP Nicola Murray in Iannucci’s The Thick Of It, excels here as Karen, the busiest of bodies, a passenger who loves taking charge. Suzy Nakamura is a treat as Iris, Judd’s assistant, deadpanning aphoristic lines like “a problem is a solution without a solution", while Silicon Valley superstar Zach Woods steals the show as Matt, the head of customer relations, consummately unhelpful and increasingly too weird, even for Judd. “Do you like to drink?" he asks in an on-board commercial for the ship’s bar. “I know my Dad did."

Six episodes in, I wager Matt will prove to be the unlikely provider of answers. “This is fate," he says as news pours in, “and it’s freestyling with us. This is like jazz-fate." Jazz-fate is a perfect space for Armando Iannucci’s improvisatory yet precisely honed brand of comedy. Avenue 5 is a deliciously weird ride that truly keeps us in the dark about what may happen next. It is something that—flying be damned—one shouldn’t miss.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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