The talented Armando Iannucci, who’s created some terrific television over the years, misses the mark with “Avenue 5,” his new outer-space comedy that plays like a forgettable network sitcom — a rare whiff for the creator of HBO’s “Veep” and co-creator of the UK’s “I’m Alan Partridge.”
“Avenue 5” lacks the comedic sophistication of those series (starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Steve Coogan, respectively), and even the presence of “Veep” co-star Hugh Laurie — steering the (space)ship here as bearded Captain Ryan Clark — can’t save this HBO series from its over-reliance on leaden jokes and cardboard-cutout characters. There’s the occasional witty line (“Brilliant mind, terrible knees,” Clark says of a colleague; “that pregnant pause is in its 3rd trimester,” says another), but, elaborate special effects notwithstanding, “Avenue 5” never does find its space jam.
Here’s the setup: It’s sometime in the future, where cruises in space, on ships that look like sleek intergalactic ocean liners, are a favored way to travel. Avenue 5, one of a fleet of luxury space cruisers owned by platinum-blond, scruffy billionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad), is on its maiden voyage, an eight-week “space cruise” around Saturn under the reassuring command of affable Capt. Clark.
Shortly after launch, however, the journey is thrown into chaos when a “gravity flip” throws Avenue 5 off its trajectory — meaning it will now take three years to return to Earth unless someone can devise a solution to the crisis. That won’t be the ship’s chief engineer, killed during the gravity flip (it’s played for laughs), or even Capt. Clark, lauded for his past heroics but who, we eventually learn, is hiding several secrets.
The action flips back and forth between the ship and mission control back on Earth, and much is made of the 26-second communication delay between the two entities (a clever conceit wrung dry by Iannucci and co-writers Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche).
The show’s supporting cast includes Zach Woods (“Silicon Valley”) as the ship’s put-upon customer relations guy; Rebecca Front (“Poldark”) as a pushy, obnoxious passenger with a milquetoast husband (Andy Buckley) who won’t take no for an answer; Rav Mulcair as the head of mission control; and Ethan Phillips (who’s good) as an ex-astronaut who can’t seem to command much respect from anybody aboard the ship. There’s also a bickering married couple (Jessica St. Clair, Kyle Bornheimer) and Neil Casey, another “Silicon Valley” alum, who plays Avenue 5 engineer Cyrus (he of the aforementioned “terrible knees”).
The reliable Laurie, who comes from a comedic background in England (he and Stephen Fry were “Fry & Laurie,” a double act in the ’80s and ’90s) does what he can with the material but is mostly left holding the bag. The same can be said of nearly everyone else in the cast (there’s no subtlety here), though Gad overplays Judd to the point that you wish he had a lot less screen time.
That being said, I’m guessing “Avenue 5” will go down as an unfortunate blip on Iannucci’s stellar resume, which includes “The Death of Stalin,” a sly 2017 big-screen comedy he co-wrote and directed. Perhaps this trip into outer space will keep him tethered to more his more comfortable earth-bound comic world.