Avenue 5’s Rocky First Season Has Been a Study in Contrasts

Breaking down the highs and lows of the HBO comedy’s freshman season.
  • Rebecca Front and Hugh Laurie in Avenue 5. (HBO)
    Rebecca Front and Hugh Laurie in Avenue 5. (HBO)

    In many ways, Avenue 5 fits in nicely with creator Armando Iannucci’s past work. The writer and director behind shows like Veep and films like The Death of Stalin has had a hand in some of the sharpest political satires of the last 20 years, and Avenue 5 — despite its obvious genre differences — deals with many of the same themes found in those projects. 

    The series, which premiered on HBO in January, follows the constant missteps and antics of the moronic, egotistical crew of the Avenue 5, a space yacht that is thrown 3 years off its initial course by an artificial gravity malfunction. With an ensemble of narcissistic and under qualified characters leading the show, all of whom are responsible for the lives of a large group of people, Iannucci could reveal that Avenue 5 takes place in the same fictional world as Veep, and viewers would likely accept it.

    Unfortunately, Avenue 5 has struggled to make much of an impression in its first season. Those who've stuck with the series seem to agree that it's failed to deliver the kind of focused, laugh-out-loud material they were expecting. Though it has many of the same ingredients as Iannucci’s past work, the show itself feels undercooked.

    Nikki Amuka-Bird in Avenue 5. (Photo: HBO)

    For starters, Avenue 5 has done little to establish the long-term stakes of its story, which is a major problem. What would seem like necessary information for the audience to know — like how well-equipped the Avenue 5 ship is for a prolonged journey — has either remained unaddressed or has been answered in strangely nonchalant fashion. It took several episodes just for Lenora Crichlow’s Billie McEvoy to offhandedly state that they were stocked with enough food to feed everyone onboard for the entire duration of their voyage.

    The show’s world building remains strangely unfinished as well, and rather than taking the time to flesh out the details, Avenue 5 has gone off on a number of strange detours instead, with two of its episodes dedicated to a pair of unimportant parties thrown by the ship’s crew. Such asides might not feel so empty if they were used to reveal more about the show’s characters, but with the exception of a small subplot involving Ryan Clark’s (Hugh Laurie) marriage, the series has done nothing to flesh out just how the cruise’s multi-year delay will affect the lives of its passengers.

    That lack of development becomes an even bigger issue when Avenue 5 continues to focus a significant amount of screentime on several of its one-dimensional characters. Josh Gad’s Herman Judd — a.k.a. Avenue 5’s resident millionaire manchild — continues to be one of the show’s weakest components. With no one around to challenge his authority or curb his childish behavior, he's become an annoying and frustrating character to watch. The same goes for the show’s feuding married couple (played by Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer), who remain one-joke side characters who have almost no connection to the show’s main players, and have yet to make any impact whatsoever on Avenue 5’s overall narrative.

    All of these issues have, more often than not, made Avenue 5 feel shockingly empty and messy. Where Iannucci’s previous shows comically illustrated the ramifications of reckless leadership, Avenue 5 has missed the mark time and time again.

    Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, and Suzy Nakamura in Avenue 5. (Photo: HBO)

    Despite all this, the show managed to secure an early renewal. That means Avenue 5 will have at least one more year to become the comedy juggernaut that critics and audiences expected it to be, and the good news is that the building blocks are there. 

    The show’s cast members have consistently brought their A game, even if the writing has been less reliable. Hugh Laurie is turning in yet another great performance as the yacht’s fake captain, Ryan Clark, and cast members Rebecca Front, Suzy Nakamura, Lenora Crichlow, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Zach Woods have all been given real moments to shine. Together, they've created the kind of shared chemistry that, under the right circumstances could keep viewers tuning in over several seasons.

    The show has also pulled off several surprising narrative turns, all of which hint at the smart black comedy it has the potential to become. The same goes for the — spoiler alert — slew of deaths in its penultimate episode, which felt like the first time Avenue 5 actually followed a storyline to its most absurd and truthful conclusion.

    On top of all of that, Avenue 5 has set itself up for a possibly game-changing season finale this Sunday, thanks to a number of the show's storylines finally coming to a head. With Nikki Amuka-Bird's Rav heading for a confrontation with Gad's Herman Judd, and Zach Woods' Matt Spencer jeopardizing the very thing that could drastically shorten the duration of the voyage, the finale could completely reshape the series heading into its second season. The question is whether Avenue 5 will start taking full advantage of the opportunities available to it, or if it will continue to squander its potential.

    The season finale of Avenue 5 airs Sunday, March 15th on HBO.

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    Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.

    TOPICS: Avenue 5, HBO, Armando Iannucci, Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad