‘Avenue 5’ has sensed our desperation

Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark, the captain of an interplanetary cruise ship, in the HBO comedy series "Avenue 5."
Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark, the captain of an interplanetary cruise ship, in the HBO comedy series "Avenue 5."Alex Bailey/HBO

When “Avenue 5,” the space-set comedy created by “Veep” mastermind Armando Iannucci, debuted on HBO on Jan. 19, the country and its TV viewers were in a different place. Perhaps that’s why the episode, which had its share of grim humor and salty bickering, landed as just “OK.” The premise was solid: Ryan Clark, played by Hugh Laurie sporting a well-fitting suit and a convincing American accent, helmed the titular galaxy-cruise ship, which was filled with neurotic types who gave a not-too-bright, yet spoiled-enough-to-think-he’s-a-genius rich guy (Herman Judd, played with Augustus Gloop-like zeal by Josh Gad) a lot of money so they could get an up-close glimpse of the heavens. The ship, naturally, got thrown off course in that debut episode, tacking on another three years to Avenue 5′s journey home; as it turned out, the captain’s accent was just one of the many lies told to the passengers (and some of the higher-ups) in order to make the illusion of “Avenue 5” run smoothly.

While they weren’t as fast-paced or foul-mouthed as “Veep,” the show’s next couple of episodes proved to be funny enough, a half-hour-ish distraction from the Sunday scaries with snort-worthy one-liners, ominous asides about the future (a 2024 heat wave that boiled fish ponds; a White House relocated to Buffalo), and a sterling cast topped by Laurie and Gad as well as the simmering Lenora Crichlow (second engineer Billie McEvoy, one of the few people on the ship who understands almost too well the trip’s problems) and the manic Zach Woods (customer-relations gadfly Matt Spencer). But as the show progressed, and as things in the United States got, if not stuck in a years-long space detour at least very uncomfortable, Iannucci’s fine ear for satire seemed to have transmuted itself into an ability to predict the present, recasting those earlier, more subtle episodes in a much more morbid light. I’ve rewatched all nine episodes of “Avenue 5,” which is available on HBO on Demand and HBO Max, a few times since, and certain one-liners and scenes — especially the one in episode eight that’s packed with desperate passengers ready for any solution — are enough to make me wonder if, in this future, the boundary between real life and its satirical versions is simply unable to exist.


Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.