With The Thick of It and Veep, Armando Iannucci proved himself a sitcom genius. But, despite being set in space, his latest show fails to achieve lift-off, writes Hugh Montgomery.

If Armando Iannucci’s genius is founded on anything, it’s his acute worldliness. From his early news media spoof The Day Today to his excruciating political sitcoms The Thick of It and Veep, and films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, he has set upon the corrupt and powerful with a caustic verve that gives him rightful claim to being the 21st Century’s greatest satirist. And his trenchant wit has been influential: its imprint can be seen, for example, in Succession, TV’s current greatest drama, a scintillating takedown of the media-owning super-rich created by one of Iannucci’s frequent collaborators, Jesse Armstrong.

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However those familiar with the Iannucci mode of comedy may be slightly nonplussed by his latest show, Avenue 5, so decidedly unworldly is it by comparison. Physically unworldly, in that it is mostly set in space, at a time in the near-future when space tourism is in full swing; and tonally unworldly, in that it is far more fanciful and well, plain silly, than his previous fare. The situation of the sitcom centres on the titular spaceship, a luxury holiday cruiser for guests to traverse our solar system.

Minutes into the opening episode, however, a malfunction with the gravity system results in a number of deaths and many more casualties, the whole vessel being knocked off course, and a new projected trip duration of three years. While the ship’s crew, led by dashing captain Ryan (Hugh Laurie), and its boorish tycoon-bro owner (Josh Gad) try to present an illusion of calm amid the escalating pandemonium, the passengers become increasingly exasperated at being lost in space. 

The problem is that it is never clear what type of comedy it wants to be

In one respect, Avenue 5 is of a piece with Iannucci’s previous hits: as with the political manoeuvring of The Thick of It and Veep, once again it revolves around a bunch of incompetents and charlatans desperately trying – and failing – to hoodwink the public. Beyond that broad set-up, however, the problem is that it is never clear what type of comedy it wants to be. It’s not satire, exactly, for the reasons that it is neither particularly topical nor has any identifiable satirical target. But at the same time, despite Iannucci having referenced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an inspiration for it in a recent interview, it is nowhere near weird enough to hold a candle to Douglas Adams either. Instead, for the most part, what we get is a kind of semi-absurdist workplace comedy, in which the space element feels almost arbitrary.

Above all, though, there are just not many genuine laughs to be had. What there is, is a lot of snappy, often self-reflexive repartee – characters are wont to dissect their conversations as they’re having them, with complaints, say, about the use of unnecessarily complicated language or observations such as “that pregnant pause was in its third trimester” –  but rarely does any of this coalesce into an actual joke. And without giving too much away, as the episodes progress, it becomes increasingly meta – a space fiction about characters acting in a space fiction. As scripts go, it is superficially sharp, but appropriately perhaps, given the setting, weightless.

Maybe it will end up being a metaphysical space drama adulterated by gags about being ‘trapped on a branded dildo’ 

If the writing is thin, however, the ensemble’s performances elevate it. Laurie projects enjoyable straight man energy as a struggling all-American hero, before convincingly executing the character shifts required of him. Of the corporate lackeys trying to negotiate the calamity, particular mention should go to The Office/Silicon Valley star Zach Woods as a wryly nihilistic Head of Passenger Services and Suzy Nakamura as a wonderfully brusque deputy. The single most comedically satisfying turn, however, is little more than a cameo thus far: Daisy May Cooper (best known as the creator and star of BBC mockumentary This Country) effortlessly steals scenes as a fabulously nonchalant crew member called Sarah.

It’s also the case that, from an uninspiring start, the series becomes more enticing as it goes on – though surprisingly perhaps, that’s more to do with the dramatic potential of the premise than with the comic juice extracted from it. Certainly, come the perilous cliffhanger ending of episode four – the last of the episodes offered up for preview – the show begins to reap rewards from its galactic setting. Who knows? Maybe, against the odds, it will end up being neither satire, nor surreal farce, nor workplace comedy, but rather a metaphysical space drama adulterated by gags: 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with less Strauss, and more quips about being “trapped on a branded dildo hurtling through space”. It may be worth hanging in there to see, though I wouldn’t like to bet on it. 

★★☆☆☆          

Avenue 5 begins on HBO in the US on 19 January and on Sky One and NOW TV in the UK on 22 January.

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