‘Avenue 5’ made its debut last week on HBO, and showed an intriguing premise in its sci-fi comedy premiere: when the titular luxury space cruise ship suffers an unexpected malfunction halfway into its 8-week maiden voyage, the estimated return time to Earth is adjusted to a three-year trip, causing much panic and consternation among the cruise guests. The ship’s staff, under the suspect supervision of “for-show-only” Captain Ryan Clark and billionaire Avenue 5 owner Herman Judd, are doing what they can, but with their Chief Engineer killed during the malfunction, second engineer Billie McEvoy struggles with being one of the only people on the ship to have any actual technical and scientific knowledge to combat the ongoing on-board issues.
WARNING: Spoilers for this episode of ‘Avenue 5’ lie ahead, obviously. If you haven’t seen the episode and don’t wish for any of its content to be spoiled for you, the time to turn back is NOW!
RECAP: Picking up directly where the mayhem of the previous episode left off, Captain Clark is trying to do what he can to perform his role as ship’s captain, even though it seems that most of the staff knows (and is weirdly understanding of the fact) that he’s a fraud; deceased Chief Engineer Joe, as Clark so eloquently puts it, “was the real captain.” Nonetheless, none of the passengers know this, so Ryan continues in his duties of appearing to be in charge.
His first mission in this episode: perform the funeral services for Joe. Judd has, in what his assistant/adviser Iris recommends as a good “PR move,” donated his personal coffin (which of course he takes with him everywhere) for use with Joe’s body. One problem: the coffin is gold-plated and lead-lined, and the crew doesn’t realize until it’s too late that the ship’s airlock doesn’t have enough power to fully jettison away an item of that size. So now the coffin is orbiting Avenue 5 like a macabre little moon.
Another engineer on staff, Lucas, believes his math shows that the ship can get back to Earth in six months, not the three years time that’s been given to the crew by the staff at Judd Mission Control back on Earth. While this news elates Clark and Judd, Billie is skeptical based on Lucas’, well, general lack of intelligence. Rav and her team at Mission Control have begun the process of talking with NASA to employ their help, but Judd takes Lucas’ numbers as completely factual and basically tells NASA via video-chat to go screw themselves.
The passengers get wind of the adjusted travel time – mostly via Clark blurting out to scary “I need to speak with your Manager” guest Karen Kelly, who in turn tells pretty much everyone else – and the six-month estimate becomes ingrained in everyone’s head as a fact. This is confusing not only to Billie, but also to Spike Williams, the only actual astronaut (retired) on the entire ship.
The other three passengers that were injured in the initial gravity malfunction all die, and they are given burial services as well – in lighter make-shift coffins that are really just transparent containers, but ones that are light enough to escape from the massive starliner’s self-made gravity. In the cargo hold while the funeral is going on in the chapel, there’s a mostly nonsensical and fairly hilarious argument between Judd, Billie, and Clark about who knows more about science, engineering, and the world in general. As both events are wrapping up, Judd Mission Control cycles the ship’s gravity but forgets to tell the crew about it, resulting in the trio of arguers floating around as they continue bickering and the trio of dead people, who were lowered into the airlock, to not be properly jettisoned and join Joe’s coffin in an unholy line of mini-satellites circling the ship and generally terrorizing everyone who looks out any of the copious amount of large bay windows.
And no one really still knows when the ship will actually be getting back to Earth.
• Good God, this cast! Hugh Laurie is a joy to watch as Captain Clark, a man who has found himself in a situation that is clearly above his pay grade as an “acting” captain in the most literal sense – and his use of his American accent when talking with cruise guests “because they trust it more” and his British accent sneaking out when he’s stressed is pure hilarity. If Josh Gad isn’t improv-ing at least half of his lines as bumbling billionaire Herman Judd, then he is deep in the work of acting like a spaz in spades, and it is amazing. Fans of the bygone NBC sitcom “The Office” like myself are probably giggling with delight every time Zach Woods and Andy Buckley get screen time. Suzy Nakamura is the perfect ice queen to play Judd’s assistant/adviser. And of course, what Star Trek fan isn’t thrilled to see ‘Voyager’s’ Neelix himself, Ethan Phillips, back on-screen in a new sci-fi show. Series creator and showrunner Armando Ianucci (he of another HBO smash comedy “Veep” fame) certainly got his money’s worth out of the casting department, to be sure.
• This is a show chock-full of those adorable little “background bits” that you’ll want to go back and re-watch your way through an episode for; whether it’s Judd, Clark, or Head of Customer Relations Matt Spencer on one of the many ship-board video screens spouting a goofy company ad or simply one of the many cruise guests in the background doing something weird or unexpected (like attempting to set the Guinness World Record for “largest yoga class in outer space), there’s always something to look twice at.
• Speaking of looking twice at things on the show, the special effects are surprisingly solid for a show that HBO really isn’t putting much effort into promoting. The Avenue 5 herself seems like a gorgeous ship from what exterior shots we’ve seen so far; for sci-fi fans, the closest comparison I can give is that my mind wanders intermittently between Douglas Adams’ ‘Starship Titanic’ and the 2007 ‘Doctor Who’ episode “Voyage of the Damned,” which featured an interstellar cruise liner that was a replica of the RMS Titanic. Why’s every space cruise ship gotta be a Titanic?
CLOSING THOUGHTS: The show exudes charm, and the cast is a delight to watch – but the overall tone of the show is still a bit hit-or-miss, and this may be partially due to editing the stories down to 27-ish minute episodes. Several times throughout both of the first episodes, I’ve felt that many scenes have roughly cut into the next, potentially losing the opportunity to more effectively resolve a plot line or even a punchline. Blending science-fiction and comedy has never been an easy task, and it’s a challenge that more stories in the past have failed at rather than succeeding. However of a bumpy start ‘Avenue 5’ may be off to, the “bones” of the show seem solid, and the cast certainly seems up to the challenge of bringing something great to the screen, so hopefully, the editing and pacing issues resolve themselves sooner rather than later, and the series can be the shining star (pun intended) that viewers surely hope it can be.
PRINCIPAL CAST FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE:
Hugh Laurie as Captain Ryan Clark
Josh Gad as Herman Judd
Zach Woods as Matt Spencer
Rebecca Front as Karen Kelly
Suzy Nakamura as Iris Kimura
Lenora Crichlow as Billie McEvoy
Nikki Amuka-Bird as Rav Mulcair
Ethan Phillips as Spike Williams
‘Avenue 5’ features new episodes on Sundays at 10:00pm EST on HBO and their streaming service.