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Avenue 5 gains traction as the wet suit hits the fan

Illustration for article titled Avenue 5 gains traction as the wet suit hits the fan
Photo: Alex Bailey (HBO)
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Comedy is subjective, and highly personal. What kills for some will land with a thud and crickets to others. Yet no matter how high-minded and cerebral the writing, no matter how lofty the inspiration and aspiration, sometimes the best comedic choice is a good old-fashioned poop joke. After three episodes filled with surprise reveals, actor showcases, and social commentary, Avenue 5 finally gains momentum, and it’s thanks to a river of feces blowing out into space.

The series has struggled mightily in the first half of its season, and even this episode lacks the wit and humor one expects in a show with this stacked of a cast and crew. What it does have, though, are stakes and by the end, energy. The hull has ruptured, the entire ship is in immediate peril, and Ryan is being sent out into space to plug the shit-stream and save the day. Nothing all that dramatic is likely to happen—Hugh Laurie isn’t going anywhere—but at long last, the frustratingly paralyzed main characters are being forced into action. It’s a welcome change.


Perhaps the writers wanted to explore in their first episodes the phenomenon of overqualified, underappreciated women propping up posturing man-babies undeserving of their positions of authority. Maybe they were focused on showing the allure of pretense, pacification, and saving face over even self-preservation. Or maybe they just wanted to spotlight the ridiculousness of the privileged elite, and how even the most extreme situations aren’t enough to shake them from their bubbles. Regardless, the show has spent most of the first half of the season sitting on its hands, its characters unable or unwilling to take action. As this episode ends, Billie is finally where she belongs, leading from the bridge, and Ryan must live up to the position and reputation he’s been happy to benefit from both in this posting and his last. It’s a significant step in the right direction.

Similarly overdue is the episode’s focus on the back of house. Karen, Doug, and Mia are kept largely offscreen, as is Mission Control. Instead, that time is given to Cyrus and the rest of the engineers who are responsible for maintaining Avenue 5. It’s refreshing to spend time with characters with clear purpose and motivation, even just for a round of beers and a few laughs. Ryan’s newfound drive to find allies among the crew and shore up the knowledge and believability of himself and the bridge cast is a marked change from his earlier instinct toward isolation. He may be fraying at his edges, and he won’t be able to maintain both his drinking and his performance of the heroic Captain Clark, but the vulnerability Ryan shows this episode is a tremendous strength, re-positioning him alongside Billie as one of the show’s protagonists.

Ryan’s not the only one to take action this episode; each of the show’s more frustrating characters take initiative. Mia and Doug make progress, however temporary, in their relationship, thanks to an actually helpful Matt. Karen contributes to improving ship morale, doing the best she can with limited information. Even Judd is allowed an active role, mingling with passengers and dancing to distract from their more pointed questions. Rather than luxuriate in these characters’ flaws and positioning them as impediments, the episode allows them to contribute, sanding down their more irritating edges.

Along with tweaking the harsher characters, this episode spotlights a few more likable members of the ensemble. Zeke is a child aboard Avenue 5 who loves astronomy and quickly notes Ryan’s massive gaps in knowledge. He winds up propelling the plot in a way that doesn’t quite track—does he buy Billie’s Mr. Wet Suit line, or does he teach Ryan about the basic workings of the ship?—but his presence allows Ryan to ask him for help, a notable show of humility. We also get to know Sarah, the improv-loving light-switch-operating member of the bridge cast. She may be delightfully oblivious, but she’s fully committed to her craft and to having fun as she rides out this extended gig. Then there’s Frank, who finally gets a few moments away from Karen. His journey towards self-expression is doomed from the start, but Andy Buckley imbues Frank with so much sad sack amiability that it’s impossible not to feel for him when he assumes he’s broken the ship.


While this episode marks a significant improvement in the tonal balance of the show, it still hasn’t found its comedic groove. The aforementioned wet suit isn’t as shocking or entertainingly puerile as the writers seem to think it is, though it does make for a solid recurring bit. The characters are getting more fleshed out, which is helping the character-specific lines to land—Spike is much better here than in previous installments—but there’s still a ways to go. There are threads of political and social commentary running throughout the series, but so far, nothing particularly potent or inventive. What is starting to click together is a general likability and sense of fun, and that can carry a comedy a long way as it works out its kinks. Hopefully the adjustments present here will stick, allowing the show to find its feet and continue to grow as it heads into the back half of the season.

Stray observations

  • Ryan’s incensed anger that Billie didn’t tell him he’s not the only actor aboard is ridiculous. Ryan knows he’s not actually the captain, right? That Billie should be in charge? Related: Yes, Ryan, you should learn the very basics about the ship you’re pretending to captain. Also, about space. Come on.
  • Judd is still the worst, but I did get a kick out of his awkward “Do you verbally consent to a hug?” and his hug math when interacting with the passengers.
  • Billy McFarland, who co-founded the Fyre Festival and is currently serving six years in prison for fraud, became the head of the FBI in the Avenue 5 timeline. The pro-myth-US spelling of his book title is a nice touch; I always appreciate a prop gag.
  • Most of the in-show ads haven’t worked for me, but Matt’s plug for the bar was telling, “Do you love to drink? I know my dad did. Come on down…”
  • Sarah is definitely my favorite of the bridge cast, but I’m hopeful that Mads/Colin will soon be vying for that position.

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