File this under Space Content 101: If you’re going to set a TV series or movie in the cosmos, your plot should probably have things go horribly wrong. With some notable exceptions—like anything pertaining to the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon—it’s just not particularly interesting or cinematic to watch a well-executed space mission. What would 2001: A Space Odyssey be if HAL 9000 opened the pod bay doors? What would Interstellar be like if Matthew McConaughey’s close call with a black hole didn’t lead him to miss his children growing up? Would Ad Astra even have a plot if Brad Pitt had a healthy relationship with his dad? Frankly, I don’t even want to imagine Event Horizon without Sam Neill ripping out his own eyes and trying to send Laurence Fishburne and Co. to a hell dimension. (Event Horizon rules.) Therein lies the appeal of setting something in space: There are countless ways to throw characters into perilous situations and force them to contend with an environment that could easily wipe them out—if they aren’t attacked by aliens first.
But what if the real hell wasn’t space, but other people? That’s the basic idea behind Avenue 5, the new HBO comedy from Armando Iannucci arriving on Sunday night. Set approximately 40 years in the future on a luxury space cruiser taking an eight-week journey through our solar system, the show begins when a gravity-related malfunction knocks the ship off its projected course, leaving the crew and passengers stranded in space for what could be as long as three years. As if that isn’t bad enough, it’s soon revealed that most of the people in charge—including Hugh Laurie as the ship’s captain and Josh Gad as the cruise company’s billionaire founder—have very little idea how to get the ship to safety. (Minor spoiler: Among the many things going south, at one point the ship literally begins leaking shit.)
For a satirist like Iannucci—the creator of series like Veep and The Thick of It, as well as the film The Death of Stalin—this is fertile ground for another caustic takedown of idiots who are dangerous by virtue of their positions of power. Imagine putting your faith in Selina Meyer and the awful humans in her orbit to lead a spaceship safely back to Earth—well, you wouldn’t. Within the first four episodes of Avenue 5, a handful of people have already died. In a tragicomic, visible reminder of the crew’s early failures, the jettisoned coffins get stuck in the ship’s orbit and circle it endlessly. (Also, the sight is low-key traumatizing for the passengers trying to destress via spa treatments.) With how badly things have already progressed on the series, it wouldn’t be surprising if more casualties were on the way.
Such a premise typically wouldn’t lend itself to being so funny. Even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Iannucci acknowledged as an influence, didn’t get this macabre. The “lost in space” subgenre is abundant enough that, yes, Lost in Space is the name of a TV series—one recently rebooted by Netflix. That series—i.e., the Netflix version that I binged in a boozy, post-Christmas haze—is a striking example of competence porn, as the members of the almost annoyingly wholesome Robinson family repeatedly solve complex problems when they aren’t foiled by the sinister Dr. Smith (Parker Posey giving a heat check for the ages), the hostile environments of mysterious planets, or alien robots. But the Robinsons’ earnestness, while occasionally tiresome—“The Robinsons stick together” is an all-time lame catchphrase—also gives the series its emotional weight. You’ll root for them to continue getting themselves out of dangerous, near-impossible situations because they’re fundamentally good people.
You won’t have that problem with Avenue 5, which allows you to clear your conscience and luxuriate in space schadenfreude by emphasizing that most of the passengers are as terrible as the ship’s hapless leaders. (Their complaints as they maybe drift into oblivion include the sudden lack of tiramisu and the maids folding towels to look like buttholes; priorities!) That seems like it would make Avenue 5 an unappealing experience, but a roster of petty, self-destructive narcissists never stopped Veep from becoming one of the best comedies of the past decade. Also, it hasn’t prevented me from latching on to Zach Woods’s hilariously nihilistic customer relations representative, Matt, already a top-tier Iannucci creation. “I am trained to make sure your bodywash gets replenished, not to rectify the catastrophe of human existence!” he tells a group of exasperated passengers.
But while most people reading this are (hopefully!) better hangs and less self-absorbed than most everyone aboard the Avenue 5, the sad truth is their situation and how they’ve reacted to getting stranded for maybe-years feels … kind of relatable. In Lost in Space, the Robinson family and other characters are cleared for deep-space travel to a faraway habitable planet because they have certain skill sets (being doctors, engineers, physicists, etc.) and they pass psychological examinations. It is an exaggerated version of how actual astronauts train. Avenue 5 is basically what would happen if the passengers on a Carnival cruise ship were stranded in the middle of the Atlantic without any nautical experience and tasked with navigating their way back to land—only, you know, these guys are near Saturn, hundreds of millions of miles (at least) from Earth.
Floating around in the far reaches of space without the possibility of returning home is an existentially terrifying proposition, the sort of premise that films like High Life and Aniara have explored recently by having their characters question what it means to be human. Avenue 5 is not meant to be particularly thought-provoking. Instead, the show channels the kind of acerbic banter you’d find in Selina Meyer’s Oval Office on the deck of a wayward spaceship. But whether mined for comedy or drama or Robinson family values, there is something that remains perversely appealing about watching people get lost in space and slowly be stripped of every impulse but survival. In Avenue 5, though, the terrors of space take a back seat to the awfulness of other humans. In this part of space, you can hear everyone scream.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.