The first episode of Avenue 5, Armando Iannucci’s new sci-fi space comedy, is oddly zany. When an interplanetary cruise ship with limited resources, set in an unspecified time in the future, gets knocked off course and stuck in flight for three years, instead of eight weeks, the catastrophe quickly turns the show into a version of Airplane in space, silly but without the clout of laugh-out-loud punchlines.
"Three injured passengers are no longer injured," says Billie McEvoy, the engineer (played by Lenora Crichlow).
"At last, a bit of good news," says Hugh Laurie’s character, Ryan Clark.
"Oh, no, it’s because they’re dead," says McEvoy.
"You probably should have led with that," replies Clark.
It’s a noisy opener of big personality characters vying for attention, in a show keen to show that if you stick with it long enough eventually you'll see many layers. Clueless billionaire owner Herman Judd – played by Josh Gad like Donald Trump doing an impression of Elon Musk – shouts every line. Ryan Clark (Laurie) is a fake captain pretending to be American (he’s actually British). He also has a drink problem. Rebecca Front plays an aggressive American tourist, which Laurie’s character calls, "A cattle prod in a dress.” Zach Woods, who plays the head of customer relations, is like a meaner version of Succession’s Greg.
It’s a chaotic rhythm to follow, but when it eases into the dark side of that chaos it comes into its own. In the later episodes – we've seen four review episodes so far – when the real captain of the ship dies, they put him into Judd’s coffin, which they learn is so heavy that, after they fire it off into space, it continues to orbit the Avenue 5 ship, regularly haunting the passengers on their journey.
When more guests on the ship die, they fire them off into space in lighter coffins, yet the same thing happens again. It means the passengers and crew see the dead members of the ship at regular intervals. There’s a particularly strong moment when, during a comedy show on Avenue 5, the stand-up notices that the audience’s laughter has turned into crying and looking behind him notices the coffin, pauses until it’s gone, then continues his set.
Daisy May Cooper – who plays Sarah, an actor pretending to be part of the crew navigating the ship – is also stand-out, particularly when she fabricates an earnest story on the spot about being saved by Laurie’s character in order to keep the ship’s guests calm.
At its best Avenue 5 gets so macabre it becomes moving. At its worst it feels so eager for punchlines that it falls flat. The thing Avenue 5 is really missing is that biting, theatre-worthy dialogue of The Thick Of It and Veep (made famous by Iannucci, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Will Smith). It’s a wildly ambitious ride of a show, which feels most comfortable at its silliest, but most exciting the darker it’s willing to go.