After his departure from the HBO political satire Veep in 2015, Armando Iannucci focused on his film career. The Death of Stalin, which saw a return to his trademark political satire with a fictional retelling of, you guessed it, the death of Stalin in the Soviet Union, had all the hallmarks of an Iannucci production: acidic barbs, hilariously inventive vulgarity, casual cruelty, and unfortunate resonance with our current political moment. He departed from his hallmarks with The Life of David Copperfield, making The Death of Stalin his only comedy that bears all the distinctions of a usual Iannucci fare in five years.
So the news of a new comedy series coming to HBO was received with an inevitable level of anticipation and excitement. While Veep managed to be both hilarious and timely under the reign of showrunner David Mandel (at least in this writer’s eyes), it can’t be denied that the series felt ever so slightly off its axis upon Iannucci’s leave. Iannucci’s voice is near-impossible to replicate without feeling derivative or coming off as smug, cruel, and apathetic, so him returning to the premium cable network (allowing him to be as gleefully profane as possible) with veteran comic actor Hugh Laurie in the lead role (his first lead TV role since House) is something to be excited about, undoubtedly.
And it’s clear since his five-year self-imposed exile that Iannucci evolved in his directing style and set design, best seen in his recent film The Life of David Copperfield, a period drama. In the first few minutes of Avenue 5, we’re treated to something markedly different from Iannucci’s past productions. Given the fact that the series is set primarily in space, we’ll inevitably see the trademarks of such a series.
An expansive, gorgeous, sleek ship design that’s not unlike what we’ve seen in the last 10 years in J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Trek and in the recent Star Trek: Discovery. This is likely his most expensive production, and it shows. But it’s not just here is Avenue 5 (seemingly) unlike his prior work. Initially, the directing isn’t handheld nor does it feature the occasional zoom-in. To befit the different world and concept, the camerawork is steady, smooth, with Iannucci using, uncharacteristically, a Steadicam.
Set in a semi-dystopic future (a future where the White House was bizarrely moved to Buffalo and Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland became head of the FBI), the series is primarily on the “interplanetary cruise ship” Avenue 5. The pilot starts off with Captain Ryan Clark (played by Hugh Laurie) going the usual rounds on the ship, touring the flight deck with passengers, waving and smiling as he walks down the halls. And he shows little of the signature exasperation that inhabits most, if not all, of Iannucci’s characters. Even the language is kept to a minimum, and whatever arguments pop up is due to the bickering between a separated couple (Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer).
The story then goes to the ship’s Ground Control on earth, where the camerawork now resembles that boots-on-the-ground quality we’re familiar with. The staff there too feel like they’d fit right in Veep or The Thick of It. This sharpens and widens the divide within the first quarter of the pilot (a divide already demonstrated in the lag in communications between earth and Avenue 5). However, once disaster strikes, this is no longer the case. After being knocked off course by .021 degrees, this seemingly slight tilt changes the ship’s trajectory, making what was originally an eight-year voyage into three years. The directing starts to subtly go back to Iannucci’s signature directorial style on the cruise liner. And whatever pleasantries we previously witnessed in the preceding minutes quickly fall apart. Soon, we’re treated to some of the bickering between characters and the profane, dark humor Iannucci’s known for.
The crew of Avenue 5 reveal themselves to be completely unequipped for such an emergency. It’s revealed that Captain Ryan Clark isn’t a captain at all, but an actor, an English one at that (apparently people are more trusting of someone with an American accent opposed to an English one, as Ryan makes clear). Their engineer, Joe, was the real captain, and someone who happens to have died when the ship diverged from its original course. Now Avenue 5 is helmed by a man who has no idea what he’s doing.
The ship is populated by passengers who aren’t used to not getting what they want on a daily basis. The ship’s crew are continually hounded by the company’s founder, Judd (played by Josh Gad), a man child with a boundless ego, a sole focus to preserve his company’s standing and his own survival over the lives of his customers, and a refusal to accept anything that contradicts what’s already in his mind. He’s accompanied by Iris Kimura (played by Suzie Nakamura), an executive who acts as both a yes-woman and as someone who tries to keep Judd from destroying himself and his company.
Engineer Billie (played by Lenora Crichlow) is the only competent person on the ship, who’s forced in having to deal with people she never had to in the past. And rounds out the ship’s crew is Matt (played by Zach Woods), a self-professed nihilist and a completely apathetic member of the crew (Matt acts as head of customer relations, though it’s made repeatedly clear that he neither cares for the passengers nor is equipped with handling them in any way). The series splits its time between whatever new emergency that sprouts up on Avenue 5 and on earth, where Head of Mission Control Rav Mulclair (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) struggles to gather outside help in bringing the passengers back to earth.
But over the course of the season, Avenue 5 can’t escape the incredible pull of Iannucci’s past works.
Over the course of the eight episodes watched for review, the ship’s design, which previously conjured a sense of wonder, starts to reveal its own pathetic, ego-serving undertones. That gold and white, smooth curved design of the ship are shown to be a ship long monument to the ego of its owner with every passing episode. The first initial of Judd’s name plaster the various walls of the ship and his own wardrobe matches the ship’s interior design. That shining gloss is just a way to hide how the core of the series itself is that seen in almost every Iannucci work (excluding David Copperfield).
That handheld directing style, which reappears amidst tension, fear, or panic, previously worked because it amplified this already creeping horror that this could be occurring amongst the staffers and congresspeople that populate Washington D.C. But now used in the sci-fi comedy, what else does it say beyond the obvious? That at a moment’s notice, any relationship and conversation can quickly and easily tip over into the contentious, chaotic and exasperated atmosphere we are so familiar with?
Veep premiered in 2012 amidst the end of Obama’s first term. What had preceded Veep in the portrayal of Capitol Hill was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, a saccharine view of our government’s inner workings that influenced the generation that watched it. Veep acted as a (then) refreshing dose of venom. The Death of Stalin was released a year into Trump’s administration, which was, again, refreshing due to the timeliness of its release.
In the Loop was a look back at the invasion of Iraq and again came to audiences at a perfect time, 2009, a year into Obama’s first term. Now, the reason I’m pointing out the timing of these releases isn’t to say that the sole reason they resonated with audiences was they came out at the correct cultural time, they remain not just great representations of how human beings in positions of power can end up focusing on preserving said power more than the wellbeing of their constituents, but also great comedies.
Iannucci‘s voice is, again, so incredibly distinct not only in its impressive gift of creating new vulgar insults thrown between characters but also in his incredible ability to carefully walk that thin, thin line between pitch-black comedy and tiring misanthropy. And yet here, on Avenue 5, that gift isn’t as apparent as it was before. Before the series premiere, audiences saw Iannucci‘s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. The film, by all accounts, couldn’t be more different from what makes Iannucci, well, Iannucci. He went outside his typical wheelhouse and seeing Avenue 5, I couldn’t help but speculate as to why. Avenue 5 incorporates some of the ambition in that previous endeavor while trying to return to his signature style. And while at times it captures this, those moments are few and far between. The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep, The Death of Stalin, and The Life of David Copperfield all had not just their own vision, but a real, beating heart; a core each of them had (even his darkest comedies had a heart, no matter how small, malformed, and frail they were).
But Avenue 5 is adrift, not exactly voicing a perspective that feels fresh or relevant. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, and it doesn’t know where it wants to go, leaving it stuck in an unsatisfactory middle. One of the show’s running gags is the objects expelled from the ship ends up being unable to escape its gravitational pull, now perpetually circling the cruise line.
At first, it was the bodies of those who died on the ship, then it was the excrement of the passengers after the bursting of a pipe. They act as a dark, scatological portent of the passengers’ doom, and how close they’ve been to almost fatal disasters and how they’re always around the corner, waiting to remind them. Though, this joke ends up acting as a representation of Iannucci’s anticipated return to television. It can’t escape the powerful pull of his most memorable works, nor will it travel far enough away to be anything of its own. Instead, the new series is left circling above them, unable to break free.
But what do you think? Were you looking forward to Armando Iannucci’s return to television? What do you think the series is ultimately saying if anything? Please tell me in the comments.
Avenue 5 is currently streaming on HBO!
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