How far is Armando Iannucci's new HBO comedy, "Avenue 5," from his previous one, "Veep"? About a billion miles or the distance from Earth to Saturn, where the spaceship of the title is thrown off course, increasing the time its load of unlucky tourists will have to spend on their interplanetary cruise.
Set 40 years in the future aboard a vessel that looks like a cross between the Starship Enterprise and a high-end mall, Iannucci's new show would seem to be a radical departure from the acrid, of-the-moment political satire of "Veep" and his earlier British series "The Thick of It."
But there are recognizably Iannuccian things about this space-com, which debuted Jan. 19. Like the politicians and operatives guiding the ship of state in "Veep," the crew members of the Avenue 5 are an often amoral, small-minded and quarrelsome bunch whose constant sniping provides the bulk of the humor. Leading them is a captain, played by "Veep" alumnus Hugh Laurie, who is not ideally qualified for his post.
There does seem to be satirical intent in "Avenue 5," although one of the show's problems is that it's hard to tell what the targets are.
Glancing references to ecological disaster on Earth — the Pacific has gone toxic, children died in a famine in France — contrast with the apparent affluence and obliviousness of the passengers, a ship-of-fools bunch concerned mainly with clogged toilets. The Avenue 5 itself is a floating all-inclusive resort, the plaything of a childish billionaire, Herman Judd (Josh Gad), who is presumably meant to suggest space-minded entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. (Richard Branson, we're told, has met a gruesome end back on Earth.)
Any notions about wealth gaps and privatization and dancing while civilization disintegrates kind of float around weightlessly in the early episodes, though. What we're left with is a not terribly funny workplace comedy, with the saving grace of some accomplished and likable performers, notably Laurie, Suzy Nakamura (uptight business director), Lenora Crichlow (reliable engineer), Daisy May Cooper (hilariously earnest helmswoman) and Zach Woods (clueless passenger-relations liaison).
These characters banter and kvetch and berate one another in dialogue that's cutting and foul-mouthed and largely flat, or at least not as sharp as we've come to expect.
Perhaps it's the lack of an immediate, real-world context for the satire. Or perhaps it's the heavy lifting of plot and theme, a process of premise building that is still in progress nearly halfway through the nine-episode season. Revelations about the captain and crew keep coming, and a certain beloved science-fiction comedy is increasingly invoked.
Where this is leading is unclear. (And why are Judd's ships — the Avenue 5, the Broadway, the Lexington — named after New York thoroughfares?) Despite the scabrous behavior of the crew and the (largely caricatured and dull) consternation of the passengers, there's an incipient earnestness to "Avenue 5" — it feels as if we may start to see unexpected grace and resourcefulness and pluck, rather than unrelieved cynicism and self-dealing. Are we ready for an Armando Iannucci show in which pressure doesn't necessarily bring out the worst in everyone?