This piece contains spoilers for Avenue 5.
Pop culture often reacts to world events. Superhero stories became mainstream in World War II and torture became a common theme in horror after 9/11. Years into a global pandemic, it’s interesting to see what pop culture trends have arisen. Where we might have expected zombie movies to bubble up, home invasion horror slid into frame. Lots of media directly referenced the pandemic to tell its stories, while others just used its version of reality to inspire story telling. Language Lessons told a story about a video chat based relationship, and Pearl focused on the fear and isolation that came with the Spanish Flu. While some of us might find refuge in COVID media, for many, catharsis comes by way of stories that exploit the comedy and dread of our reality for something different. For that, there’s Avenue 5, the perfect pandemic comedy.
Avenue 5 is a futuristic space cruise series that crash landed into being a perfect reflection of our time. The first season came around March of 2020, just as pandemic lockdowns were becoming widespread. It quickly turned into respite for those sealed up inside by mirroring our real life hellscape. In the series, a ship full of vacationers is knocked off course and those aboard are informed that they’ll be stuck on the ship, unable to return to their regular lives, for an extended period of time. Being created long before anyone knew what 2020 would bring, the slappy comedy incidentally harnessed the feeling of being stuck in place and forced into involuntary arrested development. The story tackled false leaders who were unqualified for the job, corporate greed and its ties to government intervention, and even used phrases like “nonessential passengers.” Nihilist cruise director, Matt Spencer (Zach Woods), quickly morphed into a pandemic mood when he showed up after going missing saying he’d spent his time, “having snack attacks and shrieking.” The back half of the first season became extremely prescient when groups of those aboard the ship came to convince each other that the whole thing was a hoax, choosing to launch themselves out of the airlock to prove it, resulting in their deaths.
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Though creator Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Death of Stalin) claimed they’d mapped out the second season before the start of COVID 19, Season 2 — which wrapped this week — added more to this pandemic era riot making it feel all the more relatable and hilarious. This week’s finale took the space vessel towards Star Trek territory when the crew had to decide if they should let some of the passengers die as a means of preventing them all from dying. Dancing with Spock’s utilitarian argument, Avenue 5 boldly asked if the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. While a lot of what has happened through these past few years feels like a Kobayashi Maru, this season finale rings really true as we reflect on “essential workers” and which populations are more at risk while keeping the rest of us safe. It’s grim, but when paired with the absurdity of Josh Gad’s billionaire doofus, Herman Judd, acting like a screeching dipshit leader, it makes for the perfect comedy catharsis. When the final episode has families being torn apart by the ship literally being torn apart, the show perfectly encapsulates the experience of being blocked off from loved ones and relying on janky tech, and the limits of pretending a video call is just as good as being together.
Speaking to IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Iannucci said that Season 2 “became much more real and it was about the reality of [lockdown].” They tightened up the set, making things look more cramped and messier, and characters all descended into wearing sweats. Karen (Rebecca Front) grew noticeable roots and Matt sports an unkempt shaggy mop. Characters simultaneously adapted to and came to terms with their lockdown while constantly being on edge and falling apart because of it.
What continues to make Avenue 5 a special part of pandemic era canon is that it manages to be about the pandemic while not being about any pandemic at all. Iannucci is known for having created Veep, a series that lampooned American politics and exposed the circus of the presidency long before what happened in 2016 (he left the show in August of 2015 and noted, “the line between satire and reality had blurred beyond recognition”). He’s an expert at dousing grim political realities in laugh out loud nonsense and that’s what Avenue 5 trades in. The first season revealed the ship’s captain (Hugh Laurie) to be a dressed-up actor in a wig functioning as a puppet for the corporate elite who fumbles when he suddenly finds himself in the midst of a crisis. Season 2 opens on Captain Ryan having to stare down his subjects and decide how to slowly break it to them that their lockdown has been extended, continuing to change the timeline and drop it in increments. His frantic and on-the-spot reactions mirror the emergency-whack-a-mole leaders have tried to play the past few years. When Captain Ryan fights the president(s) for support, like a more local leader might have to, the captain and the ship experience the frustrating reality that the government has bigger fish to fry. The subplot about earth running out of its primary fuel source harnesses the feeling of our current competing apocalypses and setting the story in outer space echoes how some of us feel like we’re screaming into the void when asking for help with one of them.
While much of the show feels like an incidental portrayal of how things have felt, some of it is a ludicrously direct metaphor to the point of near unfathomable hilarity. The episode where the ship accidentally docks with a prison colony descends into on-the-nose analogy when a cannibal stows away on the Avenue 5. As a result of a dangerous new passenger, the ship breaks into a sub lockdown, everyone forced into smaller groups questioning each other to try and discover the flesh eater (feels like pandemic favorite game, Among Us). Of course, the cannibal barely hides, insisting he’s not dangerous and that his position on consuming human flesh is sound minded while he knowingly endangers all the passengers. When he’s finally caught, everyone is relieved to be only trapped in one layer of lockdown, instead of two.
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Iannucci is a master of capturing the awkwardness and casualness of the surreality of a world barreling into its demise. His unique blend of dead-panning and absurd humor perfectly allows you to gasp with laughter while watching dark realities mirrored on screen. Rav (Nikki Amuka-Bird) being commended for her work ushering people into an extinction level event, Billie (Lenora Crichlow) being the qualified engineer with no authority, and Iris (Suzy Nakamura) gaming the system for the bottom line all make for riotous reflections of grim reality that pull genuine laughs alongside their faux smiles.
Avenue 5 trades in the comedy of the absurdity of the pandemic without ever directly referencing the horrible thing that ripped apart our known reality. By doing so, it allows us the catharsis of the indirect laughter at the relatability of things like trying to have productive conversations over a poor video link connection while wondering if you should stop to fix your hair. In the middle of this global crisis, laughter might not be the best medicine, but it sure helps.