REVIEW: ‘Avenue 5’’s blend of science fiction and comedy is accessible — and kinda scary

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Courtesy of IMDB

"Avenue 5"

I’ve always been repelled by the science fiction genre. All those spaceships and aliens and pseudo-scientific jargon — it’s nauseating. It always felt so childish and repetitive. 

But maybe I’m just a grumpy old man. 

The truth is, my distaste for science fiction is born of my own flaws; namely a stunning lack of imagination and, above all, a haunting fear of the future. And that’s why it always missed me. The wonder of science fiction comes from confronting that fear. It comes from having the imagination and the courage to create a world that could come true without the slightest inclination of what’s actually possible. It’s the only kind of fiction that maybe isn’t. 

But if you’re like me, and you struggle to push through the existential crisis of what the future might hold, HBO’s “Avenue 5” offers a unique access point for the creatively timid — and a clever tale about flubbing the future.  

Set 40 years from now, Hugh Laurie stars as Ryan Clark, the in-title-only captain of Avenue 5, a luxury space cruise floating idyllically about the solar system. That is until a mechanical error causes a gravity shift, hurdling thousands of passengers against the walls, knocking the cruise three years off course. As word gets out that the eight-week voyage will now take three years — and the ship’s original captain dies — Clark finds himself forced into a role he was only hired to pretend to do. 

Imagine if “Lord of the Flies” and HBO’s “Veep” had a space baby.

While some science fiction seeks to show a more evolved human race, making the rather foolish assumption that a more complex world will breed more sophisticated people, “Avenue 5” reminds us how deranged we’ve all become in the era of decadence.

This point is made most clearly through the ships owner Hermann Judd, the Trumpian billionaire CEO and owner of Avenue 5 played by Josh Gad. The inspiration for Judd is almost too on-the-nose — fat, squat, fake blond hair, his name plastered on everything he owns. He’s the kind of All-American asshole that’s impossible to imagine being president. 

But here he is, aboard the ship he owns and knows nothing about (other than that it belongs to him), with no interest in serving the people who paid to take his cruise. In one scene, his assistant Iris (Suzy Nakamura) suggests he offer the distraught passengers free massage and meal coupons. 

He scoffs. “What am I some kind of charity?”

“I think it would make the passengers happier,” Iris insists. 

“What about my happiness!” he shouts back.

You get the point. 

This frank projection of modern times is almost too honest — uncomfortable even. Gad is hilarious in the role, but the character is borders on being too familiar to laugh at. If you think having a person like this in the White House is consequential, imagine a world in which they oversee commercial space travel. 

This is the condition from which the entire show emerges. Judd is ultimately responsible for hiring his fake captain — who was deliberately hired to be an actor, despite Judd not understanding what that would mean. And then he insists that Clark be responsible for leading them to safety. 

The other too-real-to-be-funny factors comes the group of real engineers. Shunned to the underbelly of the ship, the engineers are all cast from a list of actors who you would imagine show up for every low-level “engineer” role. The remaining lead engineer, a woman named Billie, is one of the few people on board the ship that knows how it operates, what is fake, what is real and, most importantly, what’s possible. But, of course, as the young engineer and woman-of-color with all the good ideas, is never listened too. What kind of world is that? Oh, right.

Avenue 5 is a clever blend of comedy and science fiction, but it’s formula is somewhat flat and unsettling. While the humor helps temper the usually existential trauma of science fiction, it’s all too easy to imagine the near future working out this way. And I can’t say that gives me hope.