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There’s just enough humor to keep HBO’s ‘Avenue 5’ afloat

Hugh Laurie stars as the captain of a luxury cruise ship stuck in outer space in HBO's "Avenue 5."
Hugh Laurie stars as the captain of a luxury cruise ship stuck in outer space in HBO's "Avenue 5."Alex Bailey/HBO

Armando Iannucci is the creator of “Veep,” a show that took profanity to new levels of artistry. Aside from the Twitter feed of “Wire” creator David Simon, who is the Shakespeare of filthy insults, the HBO political satire featured some of the fiercest burns to hit the air in the past decade. But in his new HBO series, “Avenue 5,” Iannucci isn’t as taken with ranting, language-crazed insults. In what may be a slyly inverted reference to “Veep,” there is one curse-loving character, Rebecca Front’s Karen, but she can’t bring herself to utter the bad words. Instead, she uses their initials.

In other words, “Avenue 5,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., is not what many fans of “Veep” or Iannucci’s “The Thick of It” might expect. The dialogue isn’t as spiky, and the conflicts among the ensemble of characters, while occasionally amusing, aren’t as twisted or psychologically fraught. It’s an entirely different, and much less ferocious, beast. That said, the four episodes HBO made available for preview feature a few good, unexpected twists, in a “The Good Place Lite” kind of way, and some of the performances are promising and, in the case of Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, and Suzy Nakamura, instantly indelible. I’m in wait-and-see mode, with a side of optimism.


“Avenue 5” is set 40 years in the future, on what is the space equivalent of a 4,000-guest luxury cruise ship. Inside the sleek ship, there’s group yoga; outside, there are stars and more stars. Laurie, who was Tom James on “Veep,” plays the ship’s captain, Ryan Clark, who is considered a hero by the crew for his behavior on another ship, Avenue 3, when it had problems. When a crisis alters Avenue 5’s path, so that the eight-week trip accidentally becomes a much longer journey, he presents the upset, claustrophobic passengers with a calm front, despite what’s really going on in his head. If there is overlap with “Veep,” it may be in Ryan’s approach to leadership, which, like that of Selena Meyers, is shockingly and humorously hollow. Laurie appears to be having fun, toggling between Ryan’s public and private selves.

At the opposite end of the calm-front spectrum is the owner of the cruise company, a billionaire named Herman Judd who is played by Josh Gad as an annoying man-baby. A little of his brattiness goes a very long way. Fortunately, the ensemble is big enough — with the ship’s staff, the guests, and the people on Earth who stay in touch with the space crew — to keep Gad’s bluster from dominating. Also, Herman is contained by an assistant, Nakamura’s Iris Kimura, whose intensity is amusing.


My favorite character, I think, is going to be the head of customer relations, Matt Spencer, who is played by the gently eccentric Woods. Once the crisis on Avenue 5 occurs and the trip is extended, the guests come to him en masse for help, but he’s not particularly interested in soothing anyone. Turns out Matt is a closet nihilist who, on some level, enjoys not helping terrified customers despite his job description. His “bwahahaha” expressions are priceless. Among the passenger characters, Front’s Karen Kelly stands out as a rebel who refuses to stand down when the crew tries to keep the guests from mass panic. As an always arguing couple in the process of breaking up, Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair are harder to take — a joke stretched much too thin.


The show threatens to become unwieldy at certain points, as Iannucci tries to keep all the many characters — and their secrets — in the mix while establishing the world of the future and moving the story line forward. But then “Veep” took a little while to come together, and I have faith in Iannucci’s guiding hand. No Ryan Clark, he.


Starring: Hugh Laurie, Zach Woods, Suzy Nakamura, Rebecca Front, Josh Gad, Lenora Crichlow, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ethan Phillips, Kyle Bornheimer, Jessica St. Clair

On: HBO, Sunday at 10 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.