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HBO’s ‘Avenue 5’ is the perfect companion to this crapfest of a year


As we hurtle helplessly toward the end of a terrible, misery-filled 2020, it’s clear that Hollywood has forgotten one of the most important rejoinders of the modern era: Too soon.

From Donald Trump to the coronavirus pandemic, the unfolding year has piled up a growing number of productions that comment on or in some way reflect or dramatize Our Current Moment. But before we bid 2020 adieu, I want to spend a little time honoring the value of a good metaphor and, by association, HBO’s blisteringly funny Avenue 5.

There is zero possibility that the series was conceived as some kind of response to the coronavirus pandemic. It premiered on Jan. 19, only a couple months after we first learned of COVID-19’s existence. But that doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to say, albeit indirectly, about our current dilemma.

The show is about a deep space journey that goes awry when a slight, accidental course change turns a six-month journey into a three-or-more-year journey. The ship is on what amounts to a deep space pleasure cruise, and the passengers, who are all there for vacation, represent a diverse cross-section of American stereotypes.

Although the ship has a captain in Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), the ostensible “leader” of this bunch is Herman Judd (Josh Gad), the ship’s “visionary” billionaire owner who’s like a techbro CEO crossed with Trump. He’s loud and obnoxious and totally self-absorbed, and he’s filled with terrible ideas that he takes no counsel on because of an unflagging belief in his own brilliance.

An unmoored race into disaster is a feature of every episode in Avenue 5‘s first season

As Judd himself proudly boasts at one point (not realizing how stupid he sounds): “My thoughts connect instantaneously with my mouth. It’s extremely efficient. Clinically, it’s probably very unique.” While the phrasing isn’t quite Trumpian, the misplaced certainty wouldn’t have been out of place back in March when the American public tuned in for daily doses of nonsense from the White House briefing room.

I don’t mean to draw a direct parallel between the two men because it doesn’t quite line up. But, Judd and Trump are both ineffectual leaders who need their egos stroked regularly and aren’t taken seriously in secret by most of the people in their orbit. And whether you’re a passenger aboard the Avenue 5 or a person living in a 2020 America that’s been effectively quarantined away from the rest of the world, you’re trapped in this death spiral with an irredeemable moron at the helm.

Also like our own journey over the past year, the Avenue 5’s voyage is a cascade of interconnected and rapidly snowballing disasters that are so reflective of inept leadership and poor decision-making, they start to feel like badly-written metaphors themselves. When the shipboard waste disposal system breaks down in an early episode, the spinning vessel’s gravitational pull creates an orbiting ring of human shit.

The shit ring becomes a permanent escort and, in fact, a point of pride for Judd. A few episodes later, he gets the idea to turn all that poop into the backdrop for a laser light show. So in a 30-minute stretch where members of the crew are hurriedly working to locate and repair a suspected oxygen leak, Judd’s focus is on making a pile of crap look pretty.

This unmoored race into disaster is a feature of every episode in Avenue 5‘s first season, and the situation only becomes more desperate as time passes and anxiety builds. Eventually, passengers and members of the crew alike start to lean on conspiratorial ideas, refuting facts and science even when confronted directly by the deadly result of their carelessness.

In a standout moment that occurs later in the season, a growing belief that the Avenue 5 is actually just a simulation boils over as an angry mob crowds up to an airlock, demanding to be allowed outside. Even after a few people break through and forcibly get their wish, only to freeze and break apart instantly in the vacuum of space, the mob is undeterred.

I sat down to watch this show during the early days of the pandemic, back in March and April. At that point, mask mandates were facing resistance in parts of the country but COVID-19 hadn’t yet spread to the point where the outbreak risk was imminent from coast to coast. But as our own IRL death voyage has evolved over time and growing segments of the U.S. public take a stand against science, the absurdity of Avenue 5‘s satirical hellscape feels truer than ever.

Both situations are examples of a slow-moving disaster that’s made worse again and again by human decisions. And while we can be sure that creator Armando Iannucci (who also gave us Veep) didn’t set out make a show about the U.S. response to a pandemic, Avenue 5 does comment on a distinctly American problem.

Much like Mike Judge’s amazing-in-hindsight Idiocracy, Avenue 5 reflects the reams and reams of dumbness we expel into the world, fueled by a not-small segment of the population’s wrongheaded views of personal liberty. (Sorry. I love my country, but it’s true.) I mean, let’s be real here: The progression of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States was never anything less than a symptom of a larger disease. 

Our struggle with the ‘rona, marked on the global stage by deadly recklessness and ineptitude, has only amplified our noise output. And so, Avenue 5‘s skewering of the U.S. public is also a skewering of the U.S. response to the raging pandemic. It’s a dark thing to watch in 2020, but deft writing and stellar performances make it go down easy, leaving you entertained even as it gets you thinking.

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