Avenue 5

3 out of 5

Created By: Armando Iannucci

covers season 1

Hilarious performances, brilliantly zany scenarios and lines.  …And yet, I rarely found myself laughing out loud.

I’m not quite sure what the disconnect is, for me, between finding something funny in spirit but not actually being elicited to physically respond, but it’s something that has carried over to a fair amount of self-aware-humored series, which became pretty common in the wake of The Office and Arrested Development.  Avenue 5 exceeded most other examples due to how ridiculous it was willing to become; at the same time, the serialization of the plot – which should be a plus, I’d think – meant a lot of this ridiculousness got revisited over the course of the nine episode first season, and that mentality does sort of wend it’s way in intra-episode, as well: part of the humor is to present an insane idea, then actually do it, then play dumb to it for the next twenty or so minutes.  That’s an incredibly cynical way of presenting what’s genuinely a pretty intelligent show, however, a lot of the performers play spins on the same quiet-to-loud persona, with a couple of dumb-as-tacks straight men thrown in to play off of; again, this means that the scope is inherently limited and ideas are repeated, from one group’s dynamic to the next.

But starting back at the top: Avenue 5 is the name of the ship, and it’s a luxury space cruiser owned by weirdo billionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad), piloted by a beautiful crew and the always calm, full-head-o’-haired Captain Clark (Hugh Laurie).  …Except our captain is an actor, as is the crew, and when a key member of the actual staff is lost, and the ship goes quite off route, the pleasure cruise turns in to an extended leave from which there’s no clear return, and during which the ship will definitely run out of supplies.

One smart quirk that creator Armando Iannucci adds is to make all of the passengers aware of the status quo.  This not only gives us some amusing back-and-forths of squabbling and people trying to assert dominance, but also removes the need to keep a plotline going where Clark and the rest would have to keep things hidden from everyone.  They try – especially when matters keep getting worse – but always mess it up, and it’s furthered by Judd’s child-like non-grasp of things, and the pack mentality of the peoples, and Matt Spencer’s (Zach Woods) faux-zen mantras that only end up exposing how bad things actually are.  Other funny people are sprinkled in, though attempts to spread the calamities to include the response back on Earth end up falling sort of flat, as these are covert world-building flashes that seem more like afterthoughts.

And perhaps therein lies some sort of key to my aforementioned disconnect: that I never really buy it.  The show that allowed me to accept that this kind of humor can work – Always Sunny – pretty much instantly convinced me, from its first episode on, thats its characters and concepts, no matter how over-the-top, were real, within the context presented by the series.  For 22 minutes, the actors aren’t acting, and I’m head-over-heels in to their antics.  But the majority of other shows, including ones I’ve really enjoyed (like Arrested Development), haven’t hit that mark: I always see the actors, and not the characters; I see the writers writing the scenes and deciding what’s funny.

Avenue 5 has a great concept that allows for some off-the-wall bizarreness and appreciably twisted humor.  It’s still too obviously making funny faces at the audience to get me to loosen up and laugh, and there’s maybe an imbalance between story and bottle episodes in order to sharpen up the humor, but I definitely think there’s a lot of promise here, and certainly enough to get me to return for its second season.