'Avenue 5' review: Iannucci's sci-fi sitcom is the funniest thing on HBO

The 'Veep' creator does it again.

HBO is still looking for its Game of Thrones replacement, but in the meantime, the network’s found a substitute for another equally important show that recently ended. Veep was a hilarious five-jokes-per-minute political parody that sometimes felt too real. By comparison, Armando Iannucci’s new show, Avenue 5, takes viewers to an unfamiliar venue for a slightly less rapid-fire series that’s equally hysterical. It might even rival Curb Your Enthusiasm, which returns on the same day (January 19) for its long-awaited 10th season.

Avenue 5 opens with a strong first four episodes displaying heart, humor, and drama that put it on course to cruise to a Season 2 and beyond.

🚨Light spoilers ahead for Avenue 5, but nothing you won’t find out in the first episode.🚨

The setting is relatable but alien: A fancy cruise spaceship in the not-so-distant future when outer space is accessible to upper-middle-class vacationers with a couple of months to kill. That’s the initial premise, but Avenue 5 takes an early twist (one of many) when a mishap onboard changes the ship’s trajectory, stretching the trip from a handful of weeks to three years.

Word quickly spreads and cruise attendees start to panic, mostly about the food onboard — this is a cruise, after all. One guest worries they’ll soon be eating swill out of troughs while an unhappy couple argues over how to share the last serving of tiramisu onboard.

hbo avenue 5 review
There's yoga in space.

The best part of an Iannucci show is typically the insults. (I can’t remember the plot of Veep, but when I close my eyes I can still see and hear Julia Louis-Dreyfus calling Jonah Ryan an “unstable piece of human scaffolding.”) Avenue 5 cares more about its plot than its barbs. There are twists, turns, big reveals, and cliffhanger endings that will have you impatiently waiting for next Sunday’s episode. It’s still funny, but don’t expect the mile-per-minute, foul-mouthed humor that made Veep so great.

The setting of HBO’s new sci-fi comedy is as impressive as the comedy: a massive gleaming vessel — or, as one character describes it, a “giant dildo floating through space.” The interior sets are all curved, shiny white surfaces and huge windows revealing the infinite outer space all around them. This backfires after some unfortunate space debris ends up orbiting the ship, which is somehow large enough to create its own gravity field.

I’m not sure if that exact bit of science holds up, but Avenue 5 does use some real-life science. There’s a particularly funny plot that revolves around how the ship uses its passengers’ own feces to create a shield against radiation. It might sound ridiculous, but that’s actually a real thing, and I can only imagine how excited Iannucci must have been when he first heard about it.

hbo review avenue 5
Lenora Crichlow ('Black Mirror') plays spaceship engineer Billie McEvoy.

At the center of Avenue 5 stands Veep alumni Hugh Laurie, the ship’s captain who’s not quite as capable as he seems. Captain Ryan Clark is tall, handsome, charming, and a total fraud hired to pretend to operate a self-driving spaceship. When things go wrong, he’s suddenly forced to actually step up and find a way to keep his passengers from rioting while he uncovers what’s really happening onboard.

Meanwhile, Josh Gad plays the confident, idiotic CEO of the space cruise company. (Gad only seems to have one speed as an actor, but it works here when used sparingly.) Zach Woods plays an incompetent customer relations manager who can only make things worse. Suzy Nakamura keeps the plot moving as Iris, a no-nonsense second-in-command to Gad’s CEO, who struggles to keep him in line, and Rebecca Front plays a nosy passenger who weasels her way into a leadership position after telling everyone else onboard that their voyage has been extended to three years.

Three years gives Avenue 5 a runway to play in for many seasons —depending on how much time passes per episode and assuming HBO renews the show. But considering the success of Veep (even after Iannucci left following Season 4), the network may have a new high-concept sitcom for years to come. The premise could last almost indefinitely, and considering that the ship holds hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people, it would be easy enough to cycle in new characters as necessary.

Whether Avenue 5 will stick around that long is impossible to say, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I certainly wouldn’t mind if much like the ship’s trajectory, the show’s maiden voyage gets extended into something much, much longer.


Avenue 5 premieres Sunday, January 19 on HBO.

Media via HBO