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'Avenue 5' review: Bland satire that's lost in space

Hugh Laurie stars in HBO's "Avenue 5." i

Hugh Laurie stars in HBO's "Avenue 5." i Credit: HBO/Alex Bailey

SERIES "Avenue 5"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO


WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Avenue 5 is a sprawling cruise ship on an 8-week tour of the solar system, when something goes spectacularly wrong, and its passengers suddenly learn they won't be returning to earth for three years. The captain, Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), is told by ship owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad) to calm everyone. Problem is, Clark's not exactly a captain but only pretending to be one, while most of his crew are actors. This sci-fi comedy set 40 years in the future was created by celebrated Scottish screenwriter, Armando Iannucci (2017's "The Death of Stalin.")    


MY SAY Iannucci's considerable TV reputation rests on just two shows — "The Thick of It" and "Veep" — but his considerable academic one on a single poem. As an Oxford don, he mastered "Paradise Lost," the 1667 epic in blank verse by the blind poet John Milton, who wrote about Heaven and Hell and the human agency in the creation of both. Cast from Heaven, Satan is its most compelling character because he's such a modern character: A little bit of Sammy Glick, a little bit of Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry, he's a smooth-talking con man who can twist words and then twist minds. 

Naturally, or inevitably, Satan sneaks his way into Iannucci's TV shows, too, including this one. The subtext is, as screenwriter William Goldman put it, that nobody knows anything. But if somebody can pretend they do -- Satan and his minions -- he can control the world. The world (or earth metaphor) here is Avenue 5, a ship of fools run by a potemkin captain and self-described "beard in a Sgt. Pepper's suit."  Adrift in space, Avenue 5 is so vast it creates its own gravitational field, so that when dead people (or excrement) are ejected, they orbit around and around, to remind horrified passengers looking out the portals of their fate or what they had for breakfast. 

The idiot who runs the whole shebang is Gad's Judd, a blowhard with fake blond hair and a passion for gilded-everything. Viewers don't need to be reminded of who he's supposed to represent in this "Lord of the Flies"-meets-"Futurama" dystopia.  

To summarize: Interesting idea, brilliant showrunner, Satan, great cast — including Garden City native and veteran stage actor, Ethan Phillips, who plays a grizzled and slightly dotty ex-astronaut. With all of this, all of them, how could something go so wrong as "Avenue 5" has? 

The answer: It's a bland allegorical satire built on an obvious point that unfolds in outer space where days (or nights) never end, and the passengers are irritating, and the ship is girdled by stiffs and human excreta.

 Milton anyone? 

BOTTOM LINE Lost in space, and on-screen, too.

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