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Against the void of space, Avenue 5 gleams. The luxury space liner is three weeks into its maiden voyage, an eight week cruise around Saturn. The ship’s design is sleek, with curved lines and a pristine white and gold interior, and as the camera follows the confident, affable captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), the calming score and smooth walk-and-talk direction reassures the audience that they’re in safe hands. Yet right off the bat, something is amiss on Avenue 5. One of the helmsmen interrupts the captain to comment on a passenger’s name and appears disinterested at best in his job, and over by the buffet line, an automated video screen shows customer support crew member Matt Spencer (Zach Woods) inviting passengers to brunch. This kind of ad would get old after a couple days in space, let alone several weeks.

These discrepancies click into place when billionaire space travel entrepreneur Herman Judd (Josh Gad) walks into frame. He’s the head of Judd Galaxy, the company behind Avenue 5, and is an obnoxious, pampered baby. No one in Judd’s life has pushed back on any of his decisions in a very long time, even his seemingly professional right-hand-woman Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura). Ryan is clearly exasperated with Judd, but even he puts up with Judd’s nonsense.

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Suddenly the over-the-top decor, the incessant ads, and the meaningless record-breaking—the largest yoga class in space!—all make sense. Every aspect of the ship is based on Judd’s whims, and the premiere looks to be setting up a capable core crew who will be tasked with juggling Judd’s eccentricities alongside the squabbles of the entitled, difficult passengers. “I Was Flying” introduces four such travelers: bickering couple Mia and Doug (Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer) and meddling busybody Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front), who is shadowed by her pushover husband, Frank (Andy Buckley). Mia and Doug’s “save the marriage” cruise has failed utterly and Karen would like to speak to the manager, please. About everything.

Back at mission control, director Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is monitoring Avenue 5’s progress. Everything is going well, though Rav’s nerves seem stretched a bit tight. Judd isn’t satisfied, though; there’s a 26 second delay between the ship and mission control, and despite the fact that there’s nothing to be done—Spoiler alert: space is big—Judd demands a fix. Two of the ship’s engineers, Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) and Joe, are sent to pretend to work on it. Joe is outside the ship in a spacesuit, messing with the coms, and Billie’s inside watching the sensors when something goes wrong. The ship’s gravity flips and everyone aboard is flung to the port side. There’s slapstick and gross-out humor galore as the passengers are thrown around, including a very unfortunate passenger in the spa whose acupuncture treatment winds up a bit deeper than intended.

Billie resolves the situation in a matter of moments, but the damage is already done. The ship has been knocked slightly off course; what was initially an eight week cruise will now be a three year trek. Why wouldn’t a ship like this have backup boosters or other rockets to adjust their trajectory in the case of an emergency? Such questions can easily be chalked up to the leadership of Herman Judd, and the unwillingness of anyone in his orbit to tell him news he doesn’t want to hear. What matters now is the hard reality they’re facing. Joe died in a freak accident when the ship’s gravity was restored, happening to be yanked directly into his drill, so that makes Billie the new head engineer onboard. While Matt spirals under the pressure of the passengers’ fears and concerns, Billie, Ryan, Judd, and Iris hash out precisely what’s happened and what comes next.

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That’s when the premiere’s big twist hits: Ryan is not the captain of the ship, but an actor hired by the real captain, Joe, to deal with the passengers and crew. Now that Joe is dead, Ryan has no idea what to do and the only area he has much experience in is interfacing with passengers and projecting calm and security. Apparently only Joe knew this, though Billie is unsurprised, and that leaves Avenue 5 with a questionable, even nonexistent, chain of command. Judd’s used to calling the shots, but he’s an idiot. Billie is the most knowledgeable of the crew, but has no leadership experience. Ryan is in way over his head, but removing him from command would send the already panicked passengers over the edge. The premiere ends with Karen brewing up an s-storm among the passengers, after finding out about their new return date, and Ryan heading out to address everyone and do his best to keep the peace until mission control or Billie or anyone else can save the day. And with that, Avenue 5 is off, its cards on the table and the writers ready to have fun within a ridiculous, but fun premise.

On paper, the setup is interesting, and there’s certainly plenty of material for creator Armando Iannucci to play with moving forward. Unfortunately, the premiere is fractured, spending so much time setting up its plot and introducing its massive ensemble that it doesn’t leave time to have fun along the way. The two most distinct, memorable characters—Judd and Karen—are intentionally irritating, and both have been placed in positions of authority relative to the rest of the ensemble. No one talks back to Judd, and as a (presumably) rich passenger, Karen is very comfortable throwing her weight around. This, along with the strange choices around Matt, results in a surprisingly imbalanced outing, one more annoying than entertaining.

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While there are quite a few kinks to work out, this premiere is worth watching if only for Hugh Laurie’s performance as Ryan. The scene revealing Ryan’s actual role on the ship is fantastic, easily the best of the premiere, and the new context given to Laurie’s accent work in this scene warrants an immediate rewatch of the premiere. Laurie slips into and out of his American and English accents even word-to-word, depending on the stressors of the situation. He’s clearly having a blast and that alone is enough to keep viewers coming back for more. Lenora Crichlow is charismatic and fun as Billie and will be a good partner for Laurie as Ryan and Billie attempt to navigate their new situation, and Suzy Nakamura is delightfully dry as Iris. “I Was Flying” is a far cry from the cutting, brilliant premiere of Iannucci’s previous series, Veep, but if the writers can tweak the power dynamics a bit, or even just give the audience a reprieve from the more grating characters, Avenue 5 may find its space legs.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of Avenue 5! I was underwhelmed with the premiere, but given Iannucci’s track record and this terrific cast, I’m hoping the series will gain steam quickly.
  • Surprisingly for an Iannucci show, the dialogue in the premiere isn’t particularly memorable, but while Karen is far from my favorite character, I appreciate Front’s strong performance. Karen’s self-censorship of her swearing is a pitch-perfect character note, and likely a conscious choice by Iannucci and the writers to distance the show from Veep.
  • Nikki Amuka-Bird is great as Rav, particularly as she gives the Avenue 5 passengers’ loved ones a tour, while keeping a close eye on the ship’s progress. More Rav moving forward, please! Also, her hair is fantastic and legitimately one of my favorite things about the show so far.
  • I enjoy both Ethan Phillips and Zach Woods, but I can’t tell what the writers are trying to do with their characters. Woods commits to Matt the nihilist and his take on jazz fate, but it didn’t land for me.
  • I was pleasantly surprised to see Jessica St. Clair among the cast. Hopefully the writers will give her and Kyle Bornheimer more to do.
  • Speaking of Mia, her loungewear is fabuous, as are a number of the other costumes. I’m looking forward to seeing what else costume designer Suzie Harman has up her sleeve, and whether the characters will be repeating ensembles, now that they’re stuck with not nearly enough luggage.
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