"Veep" creator on trading the Oval Office for lawless space in HBO's wacky comedy "Avenue 5"

Armando Iannucci speaks to Salon about his love of sci-fi and the metaphorical promise offered by space

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published January 19, 2020 3:30PM (EST)

Hugh Laurie in "Avenue 5" (Alex Bailey/HBO)
Hugh Laurie in "Avenue 5" (Alex Bailey/HBO)

In space, so many people can hear you scream. So, so many, as the passengers of Captain Ryan Clark's space cruise vessel, the Avenue 5, discover. On this cruise, hundreds of passengers freely share their gripes, accusations, and penchant for grandstanding. And that's before an inevitable hiccup changes what should have been an eight-week trek around Saturn into an odyssey.

"Avenue 5," is the latest comedy from Armando Iannucci, and would seem to mark a thematic departure for the creator of "Veep." Trading in the White House for a luxury liner that sails the solar system already changes the nature of what the political-minded writer and executive producer aims to explore. At first.

Granted, a few similarities stand out immediately: Hugh Laurie's Captain Clark appears heroic and able but right away it's obvious there's something not quite honest about him. (His wandering accent is one clue; he can't decide whether his speech pattern is American or British.) The cruise line's owner, Herman Judd (Josh Gad) is a feckless gazillionaire who believes he can make anything happen just by yelling it out.

Below deck is Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow), the ship's engineer who knows what's actually going on but isn't taken seriously. Their liaison on Earth, Ray Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Judd's right-hand woman on the ship Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura), are doing their best to manage a situation that's as manageable as herding snakes and cats.

Iannucci is an expert personality portraitist, and that remains the case here even though the premise removes familiar political roles from the situation. Without those recognizable positions and relationships, "Avenue 5" feels off-kilter in its opening episodes, but as Iannucci explained in a sit-down with Salon, this is intentional.   

Like the Avenue 5 itself, the series is a recreational ship that launches under one identity, and due to unforeseen circumstances, transforms before our eyes into a very different enterprise. Iannucci provides some guidance with regard to the first season's roadmap in this discussion, while also talking about his longstanding affection for sci-fi television, especially one series that may have a few aspects in common with this new HBO comedy.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

"Veep" found its comedy in exposing the sheer idiocy and corruption within the most familiar concept of structural power, the federal government. How does your experience in playing with that structure come into play here? And what are the major differences?

I suppose in "Veep," the problems are day to day. The problems happen that day and have to be sorted that day and there isn't time to step back and say, "Did I handle that well? And what kind of a person am I to have done that the first place?" Because there's always the next problem. It's "bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!"

With this I wanted something that was more to do with people actually having to examine everything again – every value they have. This is prompted by the sense of, you know, the madness of crowds and the group think, you know. Like when somebody says something inappropriate on Twitter and they're hounded. That sense of if you do just do one thing wrong, thousands of people will be coming at you. I liked that.

And there's this air of uncertainty and everyone is shouting at everyone else and yet there's this great big apocalypse coming that only a little girl of 16 can go, "Excuse me, but shouldn't you all be looking that way?"

I knew that there wasn't one particular existing setting for that. So I thought, well, why don't we construct a setting? And so we set it in the future, we set it in space, then we can give ourselves this flying pressure cooker. That was the starting point.

I also enjoy your decision to immediately remove the person who actually knows what to do, the kind of the shadow leader from the equation. That's happened a number of times in sci-fi. "Battlestar Galactica" launched with the entirety of human leadership being decapitated, all the day down to line to the Secretary of Education. Who actually does a good job!

I'm a big fan of "Battlestar." That was interesting, because they didn't go in for aliens. I mean they did Cylons and that was it. Nothing else is out of the ordinary and breaks the laws of physics.

Did any of its influence come into play when you were building the world of "Avenue 5"?

When we were building "Avenue 5," I didn't want it to feel like a spaceship. I mean, the thing with "Battlestar Galactica," because of what it is, it feels quite claustrophobic and metallic and you know, there's not much head room. I thought, "Well, we're on a long journey here. We want thousands of people, we want them to feel they can relax if they want." We're in space all the time, so it can look like a bar.

Like, in Episode 5, we're in a sports bar with the ship's stand-up comedian who has to supply jokes for three years rather than eight weeks, you know? I wanted that ability to feel that we can get outside the sci-fi element at any point. It looks like a hotel bedroom rather than a . . . space bedroom.

But I want to get back to a political metaphor at play here, too: You have the person who actually knows what they're doing eliminated immediately. You have the second-in-command, the person who has the most knowledge about how the ship works being completely being disregarded – oh, and she's a woman of color. And then you have the passengers placing their faith entirely in people who have no  useful skills whatsoever.

That sounds familiar.

It's not something that [Lenora] relishes. And when I was first speaking to Hugh about playing Ryan, the first question was, "Do I do it as British or do it do in an American accent?" And we both thought, "How about both?" Just to [convey] the idea that here's someone who outwardly looks like they're in control, but inwardly is going, "Help me! Please!" Actually what's interesting over the course of the season is the relationship between Billy and Ryan as a kind of, "Could you please help me and tell me how to work this thing?"

And then there's the other person, Ray, down at mission control who again is so used to being in control. But now suddenly isn't. It's that thing of when the forces are beyond your control and yet you're expected to do something. That's the problem. Because you know it will take three years. There's nothing else we can do. I can run around shouting but it's not going to get them here any quicker. It's that sort of sense of frustration.

And then Judd, he reminded me a little of when Donald Trump became president, he still thought he was like running a company and would say things like, "Can we do this?" "Well, no, you've got to get money from the Congress first." " But why can't we get money?" "Because we've got a vote for it." "OK, well, can we do this?" "Well, no, because it's anti-constitutional."

It's that sense of, "Why can't I run the country like I run my company, which is everyone will do what I ask of them?" Here we have Judd saying, well, "Why can't we speak faster with Earth?" "Because of the laws of physics. It just takes time for the transmission to get there."

There are of people who run things like Facebook and so on who have reached that stage where they are having an enormous influence on the world, and yet believe that all they have to do is comply with company law rather than political law or natural law. "Why should I pay taxes? I don't want to pay taxes. I see myself as a "post tax" sort of person." You know, that kind of thing. "I don't have to censor people." You know, that sort of thing.

I do love the visual metaphors remind them that they are the mercy of the forces of the universe that are constantly present in these episodes. Can you talk about coming up with that conceit, this merger of a scientific principle and comedy?

I don't know, it's almost like these things had been quietly bubbling away so that when we sat down and had our first proper discussions about the first episode, it just kind of all splurted out. I'm sort of writing this in a different way in that I'm trying not to over-plot it. I felt sometimes in "Veep" we tried to give ourselves the challenge of having five different stories running simultaneously. With this, I want this to be a more of let's just see where this takes us. Let's see if it can take us to surprising place. And it's not that every character has their own story, right? There's one story, but it involves every character.

And the comedy is really from behavior really. It's about how they cope or how it makes them question everything about themselves or their worth. "Maybe I should just be thrown out because I'm no use to anyone here." That sense of all starting again or what happens if there's a crime? Who punishes someone if they commit a crime up here? All that. But we haven't thought this through. Is there a constitution? I don't know. It's that, you know, forcing everyone to reassess themselves.

So in terms of just systemic social commentary, it sounds like it's quite different having those challenges where like you say, it's an enclosed environment, there's nobody who is qualified to really do anything except the people who can basically keep life support going.

Yes, yes.

So how did that change as you were writing each episode? Just going back to "Veep," you were working with very specific roles that people understand in terms of government.

Yes. This is about having to define it for ourselves actually, which I think is what the first two or three episodes are. I'm slowly introducing you to the people and then the revelations of who they really are rather than one bang. You know, with "Veep" it was instantly, "Right. Vice President, got that. White House, got that. Let's see how this runs." Whereas with this, every week I like to just tighten the anxiety a bit further with either another revelation or a kind of cliffhanger or a kind of new complication.

Right now there are many adapted, rebooted or entirely new futuristic science fiction stories that are quite dystopian. And those have an appeal which, when I say appeal, I think people see them as, "Okay, so here's a possible vision of how we can survive when everything goes to Hell. Let's learn from this."

I wanted not to do this dystopian vision of the future where we're overrun by robots because . . . I always like to do something where I can see why I'm doing it rather than someone else. I also didn't really want to think of it as sci-fi. It's set in the future, but it's more a kind of crushing existential nightmare – but with a light touch! – than sci-fi. The only thing we've changed, really, is that you can travel in space for a holiday. Everything else fundamentally is the same.

You know, there'll be some updates you see when we're on Earth. We'll see some little adjustments, some developments and changes that might be a bigger thing that might have happened in terms of just, you know, nationally or internationally. You'll see the effects of that. But I didn't want it to feel like . . . You know, "Blade Runner" is amazing. I didn't want to do "Blade Runner." "Brazil" is amazing. So I didn't want to do "Brazil," because they exist.

So is there a message of hope here?

It's not an overt message, but it's a sort of theme of cooperation and how good are we at cooperating. And what happens if we don't? That's the kind of the underlying serious message underneath it all. Also there's kind of that question of "How useful am I? If I was in a crisis, would I be helpful or a hindrance?" I'm enjoying the fact that by the end of Season 1, every character is in a completely different place from where they started. And there's the idea of sometimes in a crisis, the people that you least expect are the ones who are able to cope with it better than the ones you think might be the ones who will cope.

In fact, they turn out to be kind of ineffectual.

That sounds a lot like what's happening here on Earth right now, isn't it?

Well there you go. Fundamentally it's a kind of given that sci-fi is always a commentary on now. And of course this is a commentary on now. But it's a commentary on something that at the moment feels slightly intangible, slightly bubbling under the surface. Everyone feels it, this slightly febrile, unpredictable feeling. There's a lot going on, but no one can quite put the finger on it. It's just all a bit troubling.

Do you feel like whatever bubbling underneath is hopeful?

Well, it can be. You know, I always want politics to work, which is why I've written a lot about politics. Because I want it to work, I want democracy to work. And the frustration is always when you see it not working. But I think you've always got to write something prompted by an emotion as well as a kind of abstract kind of argument. And the emotion here is how do we get on?

Very last question: when people have taken in the entire season, what are you hoping that they take away from it?

"I wasn't expecting any of that."

"Avenue 5" premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19 on HBO.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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