HBO’s Avenue 5 follows an ill fated space cruise ship that gets knocked off course while on a
three hour tour month long trip around Saturn. Though they aren’t technically lost at sea in space, the inflexibility of their ship’s technology and their new trajectory mean it will now take them 3 years instead of a few weeks to return to Earth. This comes as unexpected news to the crew, passengers and billionaire designer of the luxury cruise ship, who will now have to figure out a way to survive together for the foreseeable future.
We’ve seen this story many times before, from The Swiss Family Robinson and Gilligan’s Island to Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate: Universe. Creator Armando Iannucci puts his own spin on the story by adding a dash of The Poseidon Adventure’s disaster, campy black humor and all star cast into the mix, along with a healthy dose of dystopian corporate greed and incompetence.
The required disaster film tropes are all here: a large number of people caught in a huge space which seems safe but is about to become a death trap; an unforeseen accident that ruins everyone’s plans and negates the experts’ education and experience, or kills them, but reveals hidden expertise among the crowd; the need to keep moving, to find food and shelter or escape death or get home; the existence of certain characters- the captain of the ship/hero, the traitor, the nerd, the angry divorcing couple, the loyal older couple, the parents of the lost child, the one who panics, the one who’s doomed to sacrifice themselves, the one who seems like a bad guy but will redeem themselves by sacrificing themselves, the hot but not bright girl, etc.
Many of these characters are obvious in the pilot, but the show is already playing with the tropes. The writers play a game of “Who is the real captain of the ship?” that’s answered, but also left unresolved, at the end of the episode. Likewise, someone would have to take responsibility for something before they can be redeemed, so that will be taking a while.
The patrons of Avenue 5 won’t be saved by the guilty consciences of anyone involved. Though they need a hero to step forward, and several traditionally heroic types seem to be available, none step forward, other than a middle aged woman who’s unhappy with the cruise ship management from the moment she sets foot on board. Sometimes, persistence is what it takes to make a hero, not a beard and a deep voice.
In other words, I expect this will be an extended 70s popcorn-disaster-morality-spectacle-satire flick. With 8 episodes that are 1/2 hour each, it’s the length of a disaster movie and it’s sequel. How many Sharknado films were there? That would account for a few seasons worth of extended disasters. I’ve got my snacks ready.
Before I leave this review, I want to get serious for a minute. The most important parts of Avenue 5 are Lenora Crichlow as Billie McEvoy,
second first engineer on the ship, and Nikki Amuka-Bird as Rav Mulcair, scientist and head of Mission Control.
I have at least 2 female friends my age (60ish) who were driven out of their engineering careers by the overwhelming misogyny they faced. I can laugh at satirizing it on TV, but it’s no joke. It’s real. The hostility is rampant, and it’s still there, even in the engineering school catalogs that use code to caution girls away.
Seeing Billie onscreen is a gift to girls and I hope she’s around for years. I hope she’s the Montgomery Scott of this show, because girls and the engineering field need her. If we’re going to get out of the current crises we face, we need bold, creative engineers, not the same types of thinking that have brought us to the place where we are now. That means we need people other than the ones engineering schools and employers have favored by default for their entire history.
One of the things I loved most about the pilot of Avenue 5 was the subversive message that, while people are trained to respond to old white men as saviors, they are rarely the ones who actually save us. They just play saviors on TV. Truth.
Avenue 5 was created by Veep creator Armando Iannucci, who also wrote and directed the pilot. It stars: Hugh Laurie as Captain Ryan Clark; Suzy Nakamura as Iris Kimura, one of the cruise ship owners; Rebecca Front as Karen Kelly, a passenger; Zach Woods as Matt Spencer, Head of Customer Relations; Josh Gad as Herman Judd, billionaire owner of the ship; Nikki Amuka-Bird as Rav Mulcair, head of Mission Control; Lenora Crichlow as Billie McEvoy, second engineer on the ship; Ethan Phillips as Spike Williams, a former astronaut; Himesh Patel as Jordan Hatwal, a stand up comedian.
Okay, kids, are we ready? I haven’t shared my deep love of campy disaster fare with you all yet, but I was weaned on this stuff. Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno made huge impressions on me when I was young and they were too. I was so in love with 60s and 70s TV superstar Richard Chamberlain, and then in Towering Inferno he turned out to be a traitor who betrayed the others by stealing their method of escape, ensuring his own grisly death. How could he betray us all that way???
But let’s move on from my core wounds to what will surely become the core wounds of the crew and passengers on luxury cruise liner Avenue 5. HBO has provided a brief tour of the ship:
That sounds, um, restful, doesn’t it?
Avenue 5 is on its maiden voyage, an 8 week cruise around Saturn with 5,000 passengers, and everything is running smoothly. Captain Ryan Clark checks in with the bridge crew, who are greeting the passengers that wish to experience what it’s like to drive a starship for themselves. The ship’s motto is “Fly safe, fly true,” and everyone feels especially safe, since Captain Clark is the hero who saved Avenue 3 when disaster struck on that ship.
Clark finishes hobnobbing with passengers and leaves his cap with a little girl named Jade, then moves on to Iris Kimura, one of the co-owners of the Judd Corporation, which runs the cruise line. She informs him that the senior partner, Herman Judd, is indisposed with fracking and gas, so Clark will be hosting the passenger breakfast.
They walk over to the large ballroom atrium where a huge yoga class is in session. Iris mentions that they just set a record for the largest yoga class ever held in space. Clark wonders who they beat. Probably one of the other cruise liners.
Over at the breakfast buffet, a married couple argues loudly. The husband is upset because his wife cheated on him. The wife is an expert at the non apology. They can’t wait for the cruise to end so they can get divorced.
Talking advertisements throughout the ship feature Captain Clark, Herman Judd and Matt Spencer, the head of Customer Service. Matt reminds passengers of what’s available at the breakfast bar and other customer amentities. The real Herman Judd enters the ballroom and tries to appear normal. He also thinks his every thought is so important that it should be acted on immediately, leaving the ship at his whim. The restaurant lights all turn red, things have to be slowed down or speeded up, all at a moment’s notice.
Spike Williams, a famous but down on his luck ex astronaut, regals the children with his stories as they watch an asteroid go by. When Judd notices, he calls everyone in the room over to one side to look out of the window, as if they’re on a whale watching cruise.
Back on earth, Rav Mulcair runs the team at Judd Mission Control. She’s closely monitoring the operations of the Judd cruise liners when a tour group enters mission control, distracting her from the ships’ operations. Avenue 5 is very close to the moment where it will use the gravity of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, to slingshot around the planet. That maneuver will give the ship the speed and direction it needs to return to Earth as planned.
Why would a tour group be allowed distract the people in charge of monitoring such an important operation at a crucial moment, you ask? Are you familiar with commercial enterprises that value profit above all else, I would ask in return?
Karen and Frank Kelly used Karen’s sister’s non transferable ticket to take this cruise, so Matt Spencer, the customer service rep, technically considers them stowaways. It seems like that’s pushing it, since their room is paid for and they were given the ticket by the original owner, who probably didn’t realize it wasn’t transferable. They really committed something more like minor fraud or impersonation.
Anyway, the viewscreen in Karen and Frank’s room has been stuck on a heavy industry slide for days and Karen is done with it. She insists Matt find a way to fix it. All Matt can offer is the view from the observation deck instead. Apparently there aren’t technicians on this luxurious but cheapo cruise, so there’s no way to fix it inflight.
Think about that for a minute.
Matt gets called away to deal with a passenger who can hear her neighbor’s fat breathing and wants the neighbor moved to a new room.
Yes, some of the passengers are that kind of entitled. There’s a difference between not wanting to look at a factory view on vacation and everything that goes into asking to have another passenger moved to a different room because you think they might be socially unacceptable to you. Let’s not confuse the two as the same thing. Passengers have a right to ask for the amenties they were promised. They don’t have the right to judge other passengers. And they can wear earplugs to sleep through minor noises. This scene is highlighting that Karen Kelly is effective, not entitled.
Rav and the control room start a conversation with Judd and Clark on Avenue 5. They can see the atrium and the yoga crowd. Because the ship is millions of miles away, it takes 26 seconds for the signal to travel back and forth between Earth and the ship. Judd doesn’t understand that radio waves travel at the speed they travel at, and it can’t be changed. He’s insisted that the ship engineers improve the communication speed somehow.
Part of Judd’s plan to improve the communication speed involves a spacewalk, or EVA, by Joe, the chief engineer. He’s pretending to work on a panel on the outside of the cruise liner. Billie McEvoy, the second engineer, is in the engineering room monitoring panels and the spacewalk. Both engineers trade sarcastic barbs about their work.
An alarm panel lights up, warning Billie about a gravity sim malfunction. Having most of the ship’s free weight on one side of the ship seems to have messed up its gravity system. The ship acts like it’s tipping to one side and about to capsize, so it overcompensates by flipping the gravity to the other side, throwing everyone to that side of the ship. Joe loses his grip on the outer hull of Avenue 5 and free floats.
In order to fix it, Billie needs to drag herself back across the room, then throw a giant lever. Joe asks her to give him a little warning, so he can be prepared for the fast return of normal gravity. Billie must not hear him, and doesn’t warn him. When she throws the lever, Joe is dragged against the hull of the ship, and stabbed through the heart by his own screwdriver in the process.
What are the odds?
Everyone else is thrown across the ship a second time, much more violently. Bones are broken. Blood is spilled. In their time of need, the ship turns to Captain Clark. He turns to see what’s behind him.
Mission control and the tour group watch the incident with horror.
Karen Kelly was in her room, but decides she needs to
interfere investigate immediately.
Matt Spencer roams the halls checking on passengers.
Captain Clark gives some great pep talks in the atrium.
Nobody with actual authority actually does much to handle the shipwide emergency, but Judd is really impressed with Clark’s bedside manner.
Just as Clark is desperately looking for Joe the dead engineer, Billie the live engineer appears in the atrium and flags him down.
She explains what happened and what she’s done about it. It’s clear that she has the situation under control. He refuses to accept her version of reality and insists on speaking to Joe. Billie is young, female and mixed race with a gorgeous head of hair, while Joe was a middle aged white man, the person that everyone pictures when you say the word engineer.
There’s no structural damage, but she’s still determining the lasting impact to the ship’s course. 5,000 people weigh somewhere between half a million and a million pounds, so all of them smashing into the side of the ship had an impact on the direction it’s floating toward.
Billie finally admits that Joe was the one who was outside doing the EVA and Clark practically panics. He sends Billie outside to get Joe, desperately hoping that the first engineer is still alive.
Meanwhile, corporate execs Judd and Iris hold an emergency meeting between themselves to determine how they’ll smooth this financial disaster over. Iris begins by foolishly focusing on the passengers, suggesting they each receive compensation in the form of a gift basket and a 40 minute massage.
I’m thinking a class action suit settlement in the billions is more like it, but we can talk about that later, when our attorneys are present.
Judd steers her toward the people who actually matter, himself and the stockholders.
Iris and Clark run into each other in the hall. He accidentally slips into a British accent for a second. She asks him for reassurance that the worst is over and everything will get better from here on out. He gives it to her. He also tells her she’s hard as a rock.
Lauren and Max, the arguing couple, see Clark go by and Max wonders whether he really has the ship under control. Lauren is sure that the “suave yet rugged captain” is doing just fine.
It’s like he’s right out of central casting.
Max, the jealous husband, assumes Lauren, his cheating wife, wants to sleep with Clark as well, and their argument escalates again.
Passengers crowd around Matt, trying to get their questions answered, but he doesn’t have any information that they don’t have. Karen joins the crowd. Jade’s father can’t find her. The captain’s hat would protect her head, but it’s with her dad, not on her head. Spike, the former astronaut butts in to let everyone know that he’s a former astronaut.
He was the first Canadian on Mars, so I guess if they need to re-enact The Martian and grow potatoes in their poop, he’s the guy to turn to.
Karen has heard enough, and tries to get Matt to do something useful, but Clark shows up instead, mouthing more meaningless platitudes. Joe’s body floats by the window. Matt finally has a chance to be helpful, as he lets everyone know that only a few people will be sad Joe died, so it’s not really a big deal.
Right about here, I realize I want to be friends with Matt.
Mission Control has developed a new trajectory for Avenue 5. Showing the flexibility engineers are known for, Rav asks her people to call it simply “the trajectory”, because she’s having a hard time giving up the old trajectory and wants to pretend this is just a minor change, not a whole new course.
They put the “trajectory” up on the screen. Simulated Avenue 5 hurtles toward Earth, misses it, slingshots back to Saturn, slingshots back toward Earth, keeps going and slingshots around the sun, misses the Earth again, and continues on that way, for I think 3, maybe 4 revolutions through the solar system, taking 1095 days, or approximately 3 years, before all of that slingshotting around will bring them close enough to Earth to land.
So, the super relaxing luxury liner doesn’t have thrusters, then? No way to course correct a little, other than throwing 5,000 people against the wall?
Billie has brought frozen Joe the dead engineer inside. It takes Clark a minute to understand that he really is super dead, but once his blood gushes out of him, Clark has to concede the point.
Rav calls Judd, Iris, Clark and Billie to explain the new trajectory to them. Once everyone gets over the time delay, she tells them that the accident knocked them off course by 0.21 degrees, which sounds like a tiny amount at home in your living room, but can grow super huge, extended out over millions of miles of space, ’cause that’s how math and physics work.
Karen decides to take matters into her own hands and get some information. She borrows a security guard’s ID and pops into the meeting just as Rav is telling the others that it will take 3 years to get back to Earth. Karen shows her common sense and backs right on out of that meeting.
The others try to explain how vectors and angles and math work to Judd the corporate genius, but in the end they just argue about whose fault it all is.
Whatever genius didn’t give them the capability to course correct, obviously.
Back in the atrium, everyone is still yelling at Matt, who remembers that he’s an entitled white guy who wasn’t hired to handle disasters. He falls back on telling them the catastrophe of human existence isn’t his problem and worrying never solved anything, anyway. Plus, they’re boring.
But when is he going to get high?
Karen interrupts his meltdown to tell everyone that it’s going to take 3 years, not 5 weeks, to get home. Everyone blames everyone else for luring the others to one side of the atrium to see the asteroid or do yoga. They blame each other for deciding to take a cruise. Matt laughs at everything. Spike’s megalomania flares up and he decides he’s the most important person on the ship, meaning they’ll all die without him.
Matt announces that he’s a nihilist and fate is playing some really trippy jazz with them. Then he leads them in a primal scream.
Billie explains that they can’t all just throw themselves at the wall again and go home in 5 weeks, because they’ve missed the window for using Titan’s gravity as a slingshot to accelerate their speed.
Space is complicated. The film Apollo 13 does a good job of explaining the slingshot method of acceleration they keep talking about, if you’ve never heard of it before. And it’s a great, true story.
Judd and Iris give up on Billie and turn to Captain Clark, the hero of Avenue 3, sure that he must have come up with a plan to save them by now, since it’s been 5, maybe 10 minutes. Even Billie thinks it’s time he became the hero he was meant to be.
He has been sitting on the other side of the table from them, presiding over the proceedings like a wise man. Time to pony up.
Instead, he has the exact same melt down that Matt just had, but in a high pitched British accent. He yells at them that he’s literally good for nothing, except looking good. The paramedics, firefighters and sprinklers saved Avenue 3, as one would expect.
When he’s done, it’s like it was an out of body experience and he comes back to himself. His voice returns to its normal, deep pitch and American accent, and he begins to work the problem. The other 3 are stunned, and take a while to figure out what happened to his voice.
In the future, are British accents rare? Or did the English became evil villains for reals, as Disney likes to portray them? They’re horrified when Clark says he’s English.
Clark confesses that he’s not a real captain either- Avenue 5 is a driverless ship and he was hired to pretend to be the captain, to provide reassurance to the passengers. People find American accents more reassuring than English accents. No one in the room is reassured.
Joe the dead engineer was the real captain of the ship. Joe was the classic engineer who barely had social skills and hated everyone. Clark was the other half of his personality, but none of that personality knew how to run a ship. Billie was next in line to run the ship, but this is all news to her and she’s not ready to take over in the middle of a long term crisis.
Having done as much as he can do for them, Clark heads out to spread reassurance around the ship. Karen is spreading the word about the new trajectory. Matt brings Karen to the bridge to ask Clark to talk to the passengers. Matt calls Karen brilliant yet furious.
Karen tells Clark that either he talks to them, or she will. He asks if she’s going to run the ship, too. She says, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Matt says that Karen is his favorite.
Billie joins Clark as he walks to the atrium. She’s sure that he actually has a plan. His plan is to smile. He gets her to smile, too.
Fake it til you make it.
It is a throne and it belongs to Clark. But they need to replace Joe as the power behind the throne. Since they’re in crisis mode, they need a manager as well as an engineer. Billie is a great engineer. Karen is the manager. She’s already got Matt and her husband who are willing to work as her lieutenants. By the end of the episode, she had a crowd behind her. If Clark gets behind her, she might be able to openly rule, but I think he’d need to stay on as spiritual leader or moral officer, so he might as well be a figurehead captain with her as second in command in charge of day to day operations.
I almost didn’t watch Avenue 5 because I’d been given the impression that Hugh Laurie was doing Dr House again, and I really couldn’t stand House. He’s actually doing an anti-House, something much closer to his work on Black Adder, so I’m all in.
The whole cast is talented and funny. I know Nikki Amuka-Bird from Hard Sun and Rebecca Front from Humans and am especially excited to see them again.
Karen has the best exclamations: “What the hairy h–l is going on?” “What the F-bomb is going on?” “Alright, Tony Macaroni, so listen to Mama.” “We’ve got an S-storm brewing and this A-hole is not helping.”
Image courtesy of HBO.