Home Theatre: Cruising into darkly funny space
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Avenue 5, streaming on Hotstar
When I first heard of Avenue 5, currently streaming episodically on Hotstar, I was immediately attracted by the talent attached to the project. The sci-fi comedy series is created by Armando Iannucci — the creator of Veep, one of the best comedy shows in recent times — and it stars Hugh Laurie, who incidentally also appeared on Veep. The premise of Avenue 5, I found equally intriguing. The show is set in the not-too-distant future, at a time when space cruises have become a thing. The titular Avenue 5 (a play on New York's 5th Avenue?) is a swanky space cruise ship. An unexpected malfunction throws the ship off course — by a mere 0.21 degrees — but this happens just before it was due to use a slingshot manoeuvre around Titan to get back to earth. Consequently, the eight-week duration of the cruise gets extended by a lot more — to start off, three years, though this number varies as the show progresses.
Speaking of the progression of the series, I must admit that I was rather underwhelmed by the first episode. The tone was somewhat uneven and the show was quite a bit less funny than I expected. But since there were two other episodes out already, each under 30 minutes, I decided to stick with it a bit longer. The show amply repaid my patience. Episodes 2 and 3 saw me laugh out loud in a fair few places and the series, while still having a tone that's hard to pin down, becomes decidedly more enjoyable. Be warned though that the humour is quite dark, in a lot of places it's even macabre, as one character puts it (dead people in coffins should really not evoke this much laughter, but I'll be damned if they don't!).
Another reason for this show being a bit of a slow-starter is its characters. None of them are particularly sympathetic. They are all varying degrees of annoying and will only get more so now that they are stuck on a longer trip than they anticipated. But the show is quite cynical and uses them as fodder for its black comedy. The one who is easiest to relate to is Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark, the ship's captain. He's introduced as this charming and heroic captain, who saved everyone on the ship he previously captained, Avenue 3. Of course, he turns out to have his own share of secrets. For one, he's not American like he pretends to be. He is, in fact, English. The actor thus gets to switch back and forth between the two accents, leading to much amusement, and on a meta-level too. Laurie, who is English in real life, used an American accent on House MD, the show that made him popular worldwide.
At the opposite end of the likeable spectrum is the ignorant, egomaniacal owner of Avenue 5, Herman Judd. If his boneheadedness, sociopathic lack of concern for anyone but himself and his money, almost infantile behaviour, and complete narcissism are not clues enough to who he is likely modelled after, his ridiculous blond hair, which resembles the orange hair of a certain president of a certain country, should be hint enough. Oh, and he expresses inordinate pride in his social media presence (it's "much greater than that of NASA," he boasts).
Somewhere between these two, lies passenger Karen Kelly, who exhibits an incredible facility for getting her own way and is quite ruthless about using her ability to influence people. She gets compared to a dictator at one point, and the comparison may not be that far-fetched. Karen Kelly is amusing and appalling in equal measure. Particularly when you stop to consider how many such people there are out in the real world and the very real danger they pose.
Add in a sensible engineer, a completely useless costumer service manager, a harried director of operations for the cruise company, a caustic handler/assistant to Judd, some more passengers and assorted crew, and you have the makings of a curious cocktail of a comedy. Avenue 5 is off to a promising start, and I have faith in the abilities of Armando Iannucci and his team of writers to use these ingredients and give us something quite heady indeed.