Avenue 5 Is Veep in Space—That Doesn't Make It Great
Also reviewed: Fox’s absolutely awful Outmatched
- Avenue 5. HBO. Sunday, January 19, 10 p.m.
- Outmatched. Fox. Thursday, January 23, 8:30 p.m.
The best TV review I ever read appeared in TV Guide sometime back in the mid-'60s. Unfortunately, I can't find it anywhere on the internet. (Why don't some of you loafers reading this try to find and link it? It's not like you otherwise have lives.) (Wait, did I write that out loud?) (Sorry.) Written by Isaac Asimov, it was a rather stern denunciation of the original CBS version of Lost in Space, in which a spacecraft is knocked off course and into another galaxy because of the unanticipated extra body weight of a stowaway. Asimov wrote, if I recall correctly, that this was, conceptually, roughly like a 4-year-old in Topeka, Kansas, missing a stop sign on his trike and skidding off the North American continent into the Pacific Ocean.
I thought of Asimov's review a few days ago while watching Avenue 5, HBO's new dingbat outer-space comedy. A futuristic tale about a space luxury liner that's gone catastrophically off its route after an unforeseen encounter with an asteroid, it's like the miscegenated offspring of a quickie three-way between Lost in Space, Love Boat and Veep: sometimes funny, often inane, and usually obsessed with conjugation of fornicational verbs.
The Veep elements—unmistakable from the opening moments, when a soon-to-be-ex-wife screams at her husband across a dining room that he can find a chair "at the bottom of the swimming pool on Deck Fuck You!"—doubtlessly come from that show's creator, Armando Ianucci, who's also the executive producer of Avenue 5. Like Veep and Ianucci's other trademark production, The Death of Stalin, Avenue 5 has a big cast, an even bigger collection of subplots, and a penchant for loopy humor that doesn't always land well.
The cast is led by Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark, the glossily suave captain of the ship Avenue 5, who preens through its largely automated dining halls plying the passengers with breezy slogans like "Set phasers to stun!" But the real boss is owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad, The Comedians), whose billions are outnumbered only by his stupid ideas. (Which include an advertisement for the ship's dinner buffet: "If you're not completely satisfied, you're wrong!") He's kept in check, barely, by his stern personal assistant Iris (Suzy Nakamura, Dr. Ken). The most important member of the crew is Billie (Lenora Crichlow, who played the melancholy ghost on the original BBC version of Being Human), the assistant engineer—who has to take over when her chief is killed during the brush with the asteroid.
That cock-up—"The worst disaster since Google folded!" shouts one company exec—screws up the ship's course that what was planned as an eight-week cruise is now going to take three years before the ship can get back to Earth, and the crew is spectacularly inept in either coping with damaged equipment or placating the furious passengers. As on Veep, much of the humor in Avenue 5 comes in the form of creatively vehement insults; and as on Veep, they fail to develop either the plot or the characterizations very much and soon wear out their effectiveness. Avenue 5 is slow to develop a real story line, and maddeningly prone to beating jokes to death. There are painfully long stretches without a laugh or even a chuckle.
Yet there are some laughs, good one, particularly when Laurie is bouncing jokes off his straight-person Crichlow. Avenue 5 might yet hit its stride. One way to improve it is to watch it after a viewing of Fox's alleged sitcom Outmatched, which features Jason Biggs (the American Pie franchise) and Maggie Lawson (Angel from Hell) as the horrified parents of three gifted children. Aghast that their kids are smarter than they are and prefer writing operas or cloning the household pets to eating funnel cake on the Atlantic City boardwalk, they lock themselves in the basement to smoke dope and plot ways to curdle the children's intelligence until they resemble Lena, the couple's dumb kid. (Does "dumb" sound mean? Her ambition is to become a waffle.)
Outmatched is abominable, repulsive claptrap, not just anti-intellectual but actually anti-intellect, a rousing call for the stupification of America. The only time I laughed was a scene in which the parents enter the living room to discover that the kids are mindlessly destroying it. "I'm teaching Lena the concept of anarchy," one explains. So that's what Lysander Spooner was talking about.