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Avenue 5 is a sci-fi comedy series about what happens when the crew and passengers of a cruise ship in space have to deal with the fallout from a malfunction that could leave them stranded for years. Set decades in the future, the show promises to spin comedic gold out of its chosen genre, but it's also rooted in something darker, something that comes from the world we're living in right now.
At the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour on Wednesday in Pasadena, California, creator Armando Iannucci and stars Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, Rebecca Front, Zach Woods, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ethan Phillips, and Lenora Crichlow explained how the series evolved out of a sense of "unease" viewers will recognize from the real world.
The series, which debuts this weekend on HBO, is Iannucci's follow-up project after the enormously successful Veep, a political comedy that also spun extremely effective satire out of the contemporary climate. Though he chose to take to the stars for his next series, Iannucci always had his eye on a certain amount of metaphor, even if he didn't necessarily let the network in on his plans.
"After Veep, I didn’t want to do another political show," Iannucci said, but added that he was still very interested in "emotions of anxiety and sense of doom and the madness of populism and how crowds can take on a life of their own. I also love sci-fi and [the idea of] this pressure cooker in space."
Iannucci began crafting Avenue 5 with the character of Captain Ryan Clark, played by comedy veteran Hugh Laurie. For Laurie, best known to American audiences for his starring role in the medical drama House, it was a chance to return to his sillier TV roots.
"It brought back to me the fear and thrill of trying to do something funny," Laurie said. "It’s so thrilling and satisfying if you get one in the middle of the racket and it goes. It’s much closer to the things I started out doing. It was decades ago and it was a happy thing."
With Laurie on board, Iannucci began spinning his story out to cover the rest of the titular spaceship, which he dubbed a "pressure cooker." Other key characters emerged, including Gad's Herman Judd, a somewhat clueless billionaire who owns the ship. Gad drew inspiration from "the evolution, or devolution, of the modern entrepreneurs," and specifically cited debacles like Fyre Festival and Theranos among his influences when he crafted a character inspired by people "who are great salespersons who have nothing worth selling."
"He admires people like Elon Musk and Branson, and I fear this is the way we may go with people running companies in America," Gad said.
As creator and cast talked through the various elements of the series — from the ensemble comedy to the massive set of the title ship — a clear theme emerged. Though this is a series set a few decades in the future, Avenue 5 is really about what Laurie described as an essential human experience.
"We are forced to present a competence we can’t really have but if we do, it’s just psychology," he said. "The most human quality of all is doubt. That sense of faking it. In the last 10 years, I had such a weird sense of it. I spent longer pretending to be a doctor than it would take to be a doctor, and my father was a doctor. That is something that everyone feels. I think most of us at some level are hoping we can get away with it."
That sense of getting away with it, of faking it until we make it, has persisted throughout Iannucci's various comedies, including The Thick of It and Veep. With Avenue 5, he has the chance to take that anxious brand of laughter into a new genre, and with that comes a very potent sense of metaphor running through the series.
"I never went to HBO and said my next one is an allegory. I wanted to feed off the sense of unease at the moment," Iannucci said. "I think ... this ship is a metaphor. It can go in any direction in terms of themes. It’s more than just people stranded in space and people being asked for their skills and then questioning their existences. It starts from unpredictable unease."
Avenue 5 premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on HBO.