For the better part of of his career, Armando Iannucci has been satirizing the nature of leadership, putting us in a chaotic situation made by leaders who are incompetent. In his award-winning shows The Thick of It and Veep, Iannucci skewers American and British politics where power-hungry people are trying to outwit one another for the sake of keeping their position at the top. Of course, seeing this kind of unpleasant character every week will make us roll our eyes. But what we see in both series is also a cautionary tale on what happens when we let ignorant people have power. Though his latest HBO show Avenue 5 still features the same archetype of characters as his other shows, Iannucci changes the setting of Veep’s white oval office into a space cruise ship that gets knocked off course due to the incompetence of the people operating it.
The story is set 40 years in the future. And Avenue 5 is the name of the spaceship in question. It is also filled with all kinds of entertainment one could ever ask for. Luxury shop? Check. Yoga class? Check. Fancy restaurant? Also check. When the show begins, everything and everyone inside the spaceship looks pretty normal. The wealthy passengers are having the time of their lives. The crews are also doing a great job. But of course, that’s just what it looks like on the surface. Turns out, an anti-gravity malfunction has knocked the ship from an eight-week trajectory into a three-and-a-half year journey.
When Billie (Lenora Crichlow), one of the engineers, informs Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), about this catastrophe, he panics and confesses to her that he’s not actually equipped to helm the ship. He is, in fact, a charismatic British actor hired by the real captain to handle all the non-technical stuff. The real captain? He’s the first victim of this disaster. But Ryan is not the only one who’s lying about himself. All the members of the crew are also actors. Even the owner of the ship Judd Herman (Josh Gad) and his executive assistant Iris (Suzy Nakamura), don’t have any ideas what they are doing except to shout some nonsense.
As the only person who is competent enough to clean up all this mess, Billie decides to hide the truth about Captain Ryan from all the passengers and the other crews, hoping it will prevent them from getting more paranoid. But both of their jobs are not as easy as they look. The passengers are rioting, demanding they fix the issues quickly. And to make things even worse, Matt (Zach Woods), the head of the passenger service who’s supposed to make everyone feel comfortable, turns out to be a nihilist who thinks that death is inevitable. “This is fate, and it’s freestyling with us. This is like jazz fate,” he terrifies the passengers.
Each episode of Avenue 5 does not revolve around how Ryan, Billie, and the others are one step closer to finding the solution for their problems. But rather around how they learn that one moment of chaos only leads to another and that they’re doomed from the first place when realizing that almost nobody on the ship knows what they are doing. This is, of course, a very dark and hopeless note. But it’s also where the show mines most of its humor. We laugh when we see a coffin with a dead passenger inside it orbiting the ship – and any time something bad happens to them due to their inability to control the situation. The writers clearly are not asking us to care about the characters’ fate. Instead, they invite us to pity and laugh at them as these incompetent people are scrambling to get out of the situation.
It’s also during these chaotic situations that the actors get to flex their comedic muscles. As the captain of the spaceship, Hugh Laurie further proves that he’s one of the best comic actors right now. His expression anytime Ryan finds out about a new chaos inside the ship is just priceless. Gad and Crichlow are also amazing. But it is Nakamura, Woods, and Rebecca Front who stand out among the other cast. Nakamura has exquisite comedic timing, driving most of the show’s humor with her acerbic line delivery while remaining as deadpan as possible. Meanwhile, Woods is able to showcase Matt’s chaotic nature using only subtle facial expressions. Front also perfectly captures her character Karen Kelly’s “can I talk to the manager” personality with her irritating mannerisms.
Still, knowing that Iannucci is the one who helms the show, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Avenue 5 is not just a sharply-written sitcom. It’s also a perfect satire for what happens when incompetent people become a leader. Much like Veep and The Thick of It, no one in Avenue 5 knows what they are doing and what harm they can do with the power they have in their hands. But where the characters of those two shows are mostly motivated to have more power, and learning what’s the best way to achieve it, the characters of Avenue 5 are doing otherwise. Nearly all of them are desperately trying to run away from the responsibility of solving the issues that the spaceship encounters, instead of finding a way to work together and fix the situation.
Leading a country or a community, or in Avenue 5’s case a spaceship, is never an easy thing to do. Not everything will go smoothly according to the initial plan. There will always be chaos. Unexpected stuff will happen eventually. And when it happens, a leader is expected to know how to do the damage control and handle the situation well using their power. But as we can see throughout Avenue 5, it won’t happen unless the leader knows what they’re doing and is competent enough to overcome the issues, as well as the people who are affected by it.
Through how increasingly chaotic the situation gets when the passengers keep defying Billy and Ryan’s orders, Avenue 5 also argues that when chaos befalls a country or a community, everyone in the system, whether they’re leaders or followers, must also cooperate to handle the problem. Especially in a time of crisis, like what the world is dealing with right now – if a leader works alone, no matter how competent he is, if everyone else isn’t united and cooperating, then the leader’s effort will be futile. A lockdown and social distancing won’t succeed unless people obey it. That’s what Avenue 5 is ultimately about, the nature of leadership.
In a lot of ways, Avenue 5 is an easy comedy about a group of foul-mouthed people getting stuck in a stranded spaceship. Yet as the show progresses, it becomes clear that what Iannucci has sketched here is more than that – it’s a satire that shows us how incompetent leaders and awful people are more dangerous than space itself.
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While Iannucci’s sharp writing and the ensemble’s stellar performances make Avenue 5 a great comedy, what eventually makes the show truly remarkable is its portrayal of the danger of poor leadership.
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