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Avenue 5 is the nihilistic, eerily prescient pandemic binge you didn’t know you needed

By Eirik Gumeny
Avenue 5

Pitched as Battlestar Galactica but funny, with its sights set firmly on the ultra-rich, HBO’s Avenue 5 has instead proven to be a sagely prescient commentary on our current pandemic state. While not as on-the-nose a choice for your quarantine viewing as Contagion or 12 Monkeys, Armando Iannucci’s space-faring satire is nonetheless eerily relevant, tackling topics such as isolation, governmental incompetence, and even grocery shortages. Only, you know ... in space.

More important, though, the show is unendingly funny, with plentiful punchlines, long-winded insults, and dialogue as biting as anything from Iannucci’s previous show, the multi-award-winning Veep. And, really, who couldn’t use a laugh right now?

**Vague spoilers for Avenue 5 ahoy.**

Like the castaways of Gilligan’s Island before them, the passengers of the luxury space cruiser Avenue 5 think they’re on an eight-week pleasure voyage, only for calamity to strike and send them off course, turning their vacation into an open-ended nightmare.

The passengers — stuck within the finite confines of the ship against their will and separated from loved ones indefinitely — react about as well as we all now know we would. There’s panic and grumbling, and a minor rebellion, but, eventually everyone settles into their “new normal,” taking future bad news in stride.

The passengers find help not in Josh Gad’s billionaire caricature Herman Judd (the owner of this massive, admittedly phallic ship they're trapped on) or Hugh Laurie’s increasingly unhinged Captain Ryan Clark, but Rebecca Front’s passenger Karen Kelly, an entitled and nosy gossip who eventually becomes the ship’s passenger liaison — a true "Karen" in every sense of the word. Ethan Phillips’ retired astronaut Spike Martin also becomes a vital part of keeping the spaceship running.

Civilians, in short, find themselves taking the lead when the officials fail.

Avenue 5 Hugh Laurie

And why not? The people in charge of the ship are incompetent — or outright frauds. The ones who do know what they’re doing, meanwhile, like Lenora Crichlow’s Billie McEvoy — the Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Avenue 5 — are ignored. Engineers are literally hidden in a sub-basement in favor of a crew that looks prettier. Because, to Judd, the clueless golden-haired oligarch in charge, it’s all about the optics. A running joke — one that we are sadly seeing play out IRL — is that he’s more concerned about what the cascading calamities are going to mean for his image (and his net worth), rather than the actual humans in his care.

So far, so good. But here’s where things start to get spookily accurate, where even the smallest touches end up being incredibly resonant to right now.

The timeline for rescue, not unlike our real-life stay-at-home orders, is constantly shifting as new numbers are crunched and new plans are put into action. Misinformation, especially in the earliest days, is rampant.

Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, Suzy Nakamura in Avenue 5 HBO

The isolated travelers keep in touch with their Earthbound families via often glitchy teleconferencing apps, their most-wanted human contacts reduced to a few minutes of screen time a day. The couples that are together on the ship fight and bicker and ask for separate rooms — it’s not hard to imagine that the Avenue 5 would end up with statistics similar to the spike in divorces in China post-coronavirus.

Entertainment, meanwhile, is found wanting. Passengers, despite the constant fear and danger, get bored. Himesh Patel’s Jordan Hatwal, the ship’s stand-up comedian, only has so much material. A manufactured, “feel-good” moment fails utterly, similar to a certain widely mocked version of “Imagine.”

And then, in what is easily the show’s darkest moment, there’s the part where a number of people, believing the nonsensical ramblings of one of the ship’s employees, decide that they don’t actually believe in the very real crisis surrounding them — and end up literally killing themselves thanks to that denial.

That seems bleak, I know, but hear me out: Despite this unending parade of uncannily prescient worst-case scenarios — and Zach Woods’ avowed nihilist shouting about how life is a simulation and death is inevitable — the show never actually drags you down. There is hope and humor running like an electrical current through Avenue 5, one that we dearly need. So check it out. You will not regret it (unlike the passengers who signed up to board the Avenue 5 in the first place).

All nine episodes of the first season of Avenue 5 are currently available on HBO — though not as part of the free programming recently released. Sorry.