There is — as one or two people have noted in the past — too much TV. I don’t mean that in a figurative sense. It’s not like I’m a hungry diner who’s handed a menu that’s seven pages long — there’s not too much food on the menu, there are just too many choices for someone who needs to eat right now. No, when it comes to television, there is literally too much. Unlike the diner, you can’t come back every day, month after month, sampling a new plate until you’ve tried them all. TV is churning out fresh choices all the damn time, making it impossible to watch everything you should watch, everything you need to watch, and everything you actually want to watch.
The point of this strained metaphor is two-fold: 1) I should eat dinner, and 2) when it comes to the vexing, 21st century dilemma of too many choices, I understand the annoyance of having another option tossed on the table. Yet here I am, asking you, dear readers, to consider one more TV show before year’s end. It’s one I was in no rush to revisit myself, after a first season that never really gelled and a delay that worked as an excuse to forget the potential within those initial hours. But over the last few weeks, I caught up with “Avenue 5” Season 2, and it very well may be worth it for you to do the same.
Why? Let’s get into it.
“Avenue 5” premiered in January 2020, aka one or two lifetimes ago. Prior to airing, the hype lay squarely at creator Armando Iannucci’s feet. The “Veep” creator was back with a new HBO comedy, a starry cast, and an alluring premise. What happens when, 40 years in the future, a luxury cruise ship traveling through space gets bumped off course, delaying what was intended to be an eight-week journey by roughly three years? Will the wealthy, privileged passengers respond… well? Will the billionaire owner’s cost-cutting schemes… help keep everyone alive? And what happens when the guests and crew find out their captain is nothing more than an out-of-work actor — a handsome face projecting confidence, while hiding a mind absent any space travel expertise?
A satire of the wealthy debuting squarely between “Succession” (2018) and “The White Lotus” (2021), helmed by a creator whose last project netted 17 Emmy Awards, and with Hugh Laurie leading the way? What could go wrong? Well, much like the titular vessel itself, all it took to send “Avenue 5” off course was a minor misalignment. Iannucci’s latest HBO series actually follows a similar structure to his previous one: Something goes wrong, and the people in charge have to fix it. When those problems arose in Washington D.C., they were easy to follow: Whether Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) screwed up, her staff did, or there was a real-world crisis, the implications for the vice president are relatively easy to understand. That meant exposition could be minimal, dialogue could move swiftly, and there was plenty of room for pointed humor.
A problem in outer space requires much more explanation. Even when it avoids getting bogged down by technicalities, Season 1 moved with urgency to meet every crisis, kept the insults bouncing back and forth like ping pong balls, and still had to make room to flesh out its characters, their relationships to each other, and their jobs on the ship. Well, it turns out unfocused chaos can undermine the audience’s ability to connect with a story — not to mention, the natural disconnect ambitious first seasons often have to grind through, as writers, producers, and cast members find the best cast dynamics and comedy stylings to build from.
“Season 1 was all about what’s going on outside the ship — with coffins spinning around in all sorts of… matter,” Iannucci said in a recent interview at the ATX TV Festival. “But Season 2 is all about what’s going on inside. People coming to terms with having to cope and seeing who can mentally and emotionally manage to do that, and who can’t. It’s all about intimacy.”
Comedy primarily stems from characters. Even in a political world rife with hypocrisies and bloated egos, “Veep” fans still remember people like Gary (Tony Hale), Kent (Gary Cole), and non-Garys like Selina herself. In “Avenue 5,” investing in the captain, crew, and passengers is all the more important because it’s easier to latch onto recognizable people than a big premise. Season 2 does just that, and it all starts with Ryan Clark.
Captain Clark was tough to pin down in Season 1. Twists on top of twists — namely, that he wasn’t a ship’s captain but an actor, and he also wasn’t American, but British — made for funny twists, but they also made it hard to get a grip on what we should expect from Ryan. If he’s not really a captain, is he still our leader? Should we be looking elsewhere for inspiration, expertise, and guidance? Can he really help these people survive in the cold environs of pitch-black space?
Laurie proved a delight from start to finish, but Season 1 never provided a sound foundation for Ryan, preferring to keep the show’s core elements — the survival of everyone onboard, interpersonal relationships, individual identities — in a permanent state of instability (or, as the fox says, chaos reigned). Season 2 took a different tact. Ryan starts the second season already weeks into a loving relationship with Elena (Leila Farzad), a passenger who appreciates his morbid sense of humor and really appreciates his uniform. When he’s with her, Ryan’s pitch-black depression dissipates. He cracks jokes that aren’t loaded with vitriol, and he expresses earnest emotions beyond exhaustion, anger, and disappointment.
In other words, Ryan has a clear, identifiable goal: He wants to start a new life with Elena. Standing in his way is the obvious threat of death, which compounds and expands as the season progresses, but knowing that our protagonist has something worth fighting for makes each emergency meaningful and each solution (no matter how temporary) a step in the right direction; a step toward Elena.
Season 2 also clarified Ryan’s role on the ship. After the actual Avenue 5 commander died in Season 1, Ryan was thrust into the captain’s chair. He didn’t want to be there, pretending to lead or actually leading, and that opinion holds firm in Season 2. There’s even an uprising and an election, both of which he welcomes with open arms, in the hopes his burden of responsibilities can be lifted. Without spoiling anything, the election episode (“Let’s Play With Matches”) defines Ryan’s professional arc in a way that offers him a fulfilling path forward without relying on other people (aka Elena). It balances a character we need to understand in order to embrace the madness he’s constantly fighting to control.
It also reminds us just how magnetic Laurie can be when his full range is unlocked. From nihilistic benders to selfless acts of compassion — and plenty of magnificent quips in between — this is the Iannucci-Laurie collaboration “Veep” fans were excited to see.
From the start, Zach Woods’ Matt Spencer struck the exact right chord in a symphony of chaos. As the ship’s Head of Passenger Services and an actual nihilist, he was clearly never the right fit for his job, even before his position became impossible to perform. (No passenger will be happy when their two-month vacation is stretched to a decade of literal shit storms.) The demands nevertheless take a toll on Matt in Season 1, as the guests’ heated complaints and crew’s dismissive attitude toward him culminate in a short-lived self-exile.
Still, Matt taking responsibility for the deaths of seven passengers has a lingering effect on the once-expressionless wrath-absorber. In Season 2, he pushes Ryan to tell everyone the truth about their new ETA on Earth. (Notably, this is a secret the audience is already aware of, which brings us closer to the core cast members, as opposed to Season 1’s twists, which destabilized our connection — shared secrets bring people together!) Then, well, then Matt goes a bit bonkers, but in the best possible way. Iannucci wisely doesn’t turn Matt into a full-on antagonist, instead using his opposing viewpoints to create an extremist faction filled with unpredictable disciples.
Woods steers each pivot with aplomb, exuding a confidence in the character’s choices where there once was a sidesplitting acceptance of his impossible predicament. Again, he embodies the show’s best traits: a hilariously calm balm amid a season of absolute insanity, and an equally uproarious instigator in a season that finds its footing.
Honestly, this reason requires zero explanation. Iannucci has proven himself a master of creative derision at least four times over — “Veep,” “The Thick of It,” “The Death of Stalin,” “In the Loop” — and “Avenue 5” was never lacking in incisive observational comedy. Some of the Season 2 gems simply have to be heard — let me know when you reach “the Museum of Depressed British Fucking Assholes” exchange — so make the time, and enjoy.
In case it’s not immediately clear “Avenue 5” is soaring in Season 2, Iannucci & Co. deliver an unmistakable classic in the penultimate episode. (Sadly, I saw it after our Best Episodes list had been finalized, but it nevertheless has earned an honorary spot.)
Avoiding spoilers, “I Love Judging People” is centered around yet another impending catastrophe, and this one requires the crew to rank every passenger. Luckily, the ship’s billionaire owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad) already has an algorithm in place that’s been doing just that since the trip began. So the leaderboard is shared with everyone onboard and live updates are given every time a passenger gains or loses points. Make a good joke? You get a point. Lie to your friends? Lose a point. Good manners? Gain points! Vicious insults? Lose points!
As the episode goes on, the participants slowly learn how to cheat the system, which creates some especially amusing scenarios, but the “game” also prompts key character revelations and smart developments. It’s a window not only into who these people are and what they’re willing to do to win, but also how gamifying life itself can cause problems, from artificial motivations to hidden human errors. Told at a rapid clip and exemplifying the cast’s steadily accumulated chemistry, Episode 7 sees “Avenue 5” at the peak of its powers…
…and if you don’t want more TV like it, then I don’t know how to help you. As I mentioned in IndieWire’s Season 1 review, modern television requires audiences to make snap judgements. If they stick too long with a show that’s only OK, odds are high they’re missing out on a show that’s better. But being too hasty with a promising series can lead to the same problem. TV series often take time to grow into their best selves, and comedy in particular needs room to find its rhythm. By all accounts, it seems like “Avenue 5” has hit its groove, so here’s hoping HBO gives it another season. Just like a production needs time to get things right, viewers need time to catch up when they do. So if you’ve read this far, don’t waste any more time. Time to hop onboard the funniest cruise ship disaster you’ll ever see.
“Avenue 5” is available on HBO Max. Season 3 has not yet been renewed.