If you missed the first series of Avenue 5 (Sky Comedy), no matter. Not because nothing much happened, but because this is a satire where the story is really not the point. Avenue 5 is another step in creator Armando Iannucci’s lifelong mission to create the perfect, sustained, five-cappuccino-frenzy perma-crisis. By happy or unhappy chance, global politics has caught up with Iannucci in the years since he created The Thick of It and Veep, but the message that emanates from his work like a scream from the stationery cupboard is that nobody has a clue what they’re doing, and the people at the top have the least clue of all.
Avenue 5 merely takes that cluster-blunder-omnishambles and bottles it, where the bottle is a self-flying spaceship - the titular Avenue 5 - that’s wandered off course. Everyone on board has paid handsomely to be space tourists but now they’re lost prisoners. The people in charge are frauds, floundering in the face of challenges beyond their competence. A combination of happenstance and duff decisions has only made things worse, and then worse still. And yes, that is an apt description of the past 10 years of world history, and yes, Iannucci and his writers are well aware of that fact.
Comedy always needs time to find its feet, for characters and character clashes to come to the boil, for whatever situations those characters are stuck in to become apparent (both to the audience and, sometimes, the writers). The first series of Avenue 5 was blessed with Iannucci’s crack scripting troupe – Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roache, Will Smith, Simon Blackwell – but felt as if it lacked a keel, a guiding purpose. Perhaps that was the point, as the Avenue 5 floated aimlessly away and an eight-week cruise turned in to an eight-year sentence.
On the evidence of its first two episodes, season two is leaner and meaner. Captain Ryan (an excellent, acerbic Hugh Laurie) is dithering over how to break it to the guests that they have eight years, not four weeks, to hold out. The food is running low and they’re heading for the sun, so the staff have to take the kind of "tough decisions" that our government did during the pandemic. (With comparable efficacy – one meeting concludes with the strategy summary of “It’s either die or die”.)
There are nods to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as the writers zoom off into the techno-absurd with an algorithm machine that predicts what you’re going to say before you’ve said it. There’s some better story structure too, as each episode builds to a precipice of mayhem before somehow pulling it back before the credits roll – one even with an Adamsian “Do Not Panic” announcement, precipitating total panic.
The only problem the show hasn’t quite solved is how to maintain the delirium built up on the spaceship while repeatedly cutting down to scenes at mission control and on Earth. Season two introduces a madcap chat show hosted by a cross between Max Headroom and Janet Street-Porter (Lucy Punch having a blast). It’s very funny, very silly and a welcome addition, but it also calls attention to the fact that the best bits of Avenue 5 are all on the Avenue 5. When it’s earthbound it founders. When it looks to the stars it soars.