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'Avenue 5' is a Great Comedy Escape on a Space Cruise
January 19, 2020  | By David Hinckley

The funniest new show so far in 2020, allowing for the fact we're only 19 days into it, is Avenue 5.

The unhelpfully named Avenue 5, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO, also leapfrogs The Orville as the funniest recent TV series about futuristic space travel.

Avenue 5 itself is a luxury space cruise ship, much like real-life luxury ocean cruise ships, except it cruises through space.

The time, obviously, is the future. Far enough into the future that the moon has been repurposed as a prison compound, much like Australia used to be, and Google has folded.

Much of the cruise experience, however, remains reassuringly familiar. The breakfast buffet still includes 14 kinds of Danish, passengers still turn out in brightly colored workout clothes for yoga stretching classes, and other passengers complain about the view from their rooms.

If that were the whole show, there would be nothing to see here. What makes Avenue 5 interesting is a tiny little in-flight malfunction that changes a couple of things. Like, for instance, it knocks the ship slightly off course, and now instead of taking a couple of weeks to circle back to Earth, it will need three years.

This is a problem for the 5,000 guests and crew because they only have enough supplies for a couple of weeks. It's a problem for Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie, top) because it turns out he's not really a captain. He was hired to wear a nice uniform and fool the paying guests into thinking there really is a competent captain watching over everything.

The ship is really run by an engineer named Joe and his assistant Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow), who are sarcastic and a little jaded, but seem competent.

The real problem is that one of the other 5,000 people aboard Avenue 5 is the man who owns it, Herman Judd (Josh Gad). Judd, as he is known to all, has little patience for or interest in anything beyond himself. He knows nothing about Avenue 5 except that it has his name in big letters on the side, and he can charge people money to ride in it.

After the tiny little malfunction leaves some of the passengers shaken up and injured, Judd's assistant, Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura), suggests he offer them free massages as compensation for, say, their broken legs.

"Who do you think I am?" he snaps, "Santa Claus?"

Not far into the first of Avenue 5's nine episodes, it becomes clear that the show's closest ancestor isn't any of our many space epics, but Airplane!, the classic film comedy that so smoothly blended satire and slapstick.

Creator/writer Armando Iannucci also seems to be a fan of the Amy Sherman-Palladino comic writing style wherein virtually every character speaks in double-time. Avenue 5, therefore, squeezes a good 45 minutes of dialogue into its allotted half-hour, and while that wouldn't be good news for every show, here it is.

In fact, many of the most satisfying jokes are tucked into conversations about something else. They're like incidental asides, flashing past like a firefly in the summer dusk and just as delightful.

While Avenue 5 is set in a spaceship, its satire doesn't really target space or sci-fi or futurism. It most directly targets cruises, which isn't a particularly ambitious target except that getting that many people together and putting them in a stressful situation brings out ocean-loads of unintentional human comedy.

Avenue 5 cruises right into the heart of it and just enjoys what it finds. So will the viewer.

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