Starring: Josh Gad, Suzy Nakamura, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, Lenora Crichlow, Rebecca Front
Writers: Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche
Director: Armando Iannucci
We all know her: the middle-aged woman whose makeup and hair make her look severe despite the original intent of making her appear young. She is entitled, self-righteous, and constantly demanding to see the manager. Those who have worked in the service industry are familiar with the frustrating predicament of having to pander to a customer’s every whim and pretend to be their best friend. Meanwhile, that same customer is well aware of the fact that they have every right to heap abuse and unfair demands on the service person with no repercussions. Avenue 5 uses dark humor and biting sarcasm to bring to light the inanity of service culture that tends to enable the worst type of customers.
The Avenue 5 is a luxury cruiser spaceship on its maiden voyage. The story is ostensibly set at some vague point in the future. Apart from the futuristic style spaceship, however, the setting is completely current-day and one with which we can all identify for the sake of humor. The ship is equipped with every comfort and luxury imaginable to the modern person, including group yoga sessions, fine restaurants and cocktail bars, well-furnished hotel rooms, and everything in-between. The videos, posters, and all-around messages from Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) and crew are designed to let the customers know that each of them is a top priority. However, this cruise of comfort is interrupted when a glitch throws the ship off course, trapping the passengers and crew in space for a predicted three years.
In the chaos that ensues, the thin layer of nicety and hospitality that overlays the ethos of the ship falls away to reveal distrust and contempt between the passengers and crew. Each new disaster leads to increased mistrust, resentment, and bickering. The disaster extends to The Avenue 5’s Earth base. Leadership, led by Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird), falls all over themselves, looking for someone to blame. All attempts to control the situation only make it worse. In the midst of the chaos, Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front) – the archetypal need-to-see-a-manager lady – rises in the ranks of the ship by becoming a voice for the passengers.
The show is enjoyable for its biting sarcasm (which is as harsh as its glaring outfits), the terse dialogue of its characters, and the macabre humor of its situations. The distress that the leadership feels is completely selfish and comes from fear of losing their position and reputation rather than a sense of responsibility and genuine concern for the human lives in jeopardy. The lack of integrity is painfully obvious and remains the running punchline throughout the show. The only person who shows competent leadership skills and concern for the good of the ship, not just her own skin, is the engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow). Her contempt for the ship’s administrative team further extenuates the irony that the show indicates. This lies at the heart of the service industry: self-centeredness on both parts of those who institute the system and those who engage in it.
While the sarcasm is painfully accurate, it is not necessarily enjoyable. The jokes stop being funny past the first two episodes. The laughter evoked is cringey and painful. Scenes where characters begin to engage in thoughtful reflection are immediately squelched in sardonicism. The fact that the humor does not extend past irony and sarcasm is in some ways fitting — mostly for that aspect of internet culture that expresses cynicism through memes and irony and are unable to engage in conversation that is thoughtful, constructive, and optimistic.
In conclusion, Avenue 5 is a fun show for those who enjoy macabre and cringe humor. Also, those who feel the need to vicariously live out righteous indignation. A good point of the story is that it evokes important questions regarding our motives in relationships with employers, co-workers, and strangers. Are there times that we confuse being nice with being dishonest and take our little white lies too far into the territory of strategic manipulation and sucking-up? What about the times we feel entitled to being spiteful in the name of being honest? Are we “putting people first” for money or because we genuinely care? While Avenue 5 doesn’t explore these questions deeply enough to provide answers, even the most banal forms of comedy leave room for broader reflection.
Avenue 5 debuts on HBO on Sunday, January 19, 2020.