In a sketch from “The Armando Iannucci Shows,” a Channel 4 series from the “Veep” creator’s early catalogue, a couple tours a house with an eye to buying it. However, they discover that the property is, in fact, a paper drawing made by a bunch of youths with massive, life-sized crayons. Such commentary on the facades that humans put up, and the way that civilized society can come tumbling down like paper houses in a breath of wind, is a theme Iannucci returns to with his new HBO series, “Avenue 5.”
“As you get older, you suddenly realize that the great secret everyone has been keeping to themselves is that no one quite knows what the f— they’re doing,” Iannucci tells Variety.
Set 40 years in the future, “Avenue 5” centers around Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie), the captain of the titular spaceship, which is taking several thousand lucky passengers for a journey around Saturn. However, when a technical disaster strikes the ship, the cruise’s journey time is drastically increased, and the passengers’ patience and humanity is tested to the limit as a result.
After making “The Thick of It” in the U.K. and “Veep” in the U.S. on the TV front, Iannucci says he wanted to take a break from “insult heavy political drama” fare while exploring a new genre in sci-fi that he has always “been a big fan of.” Although viewers might expect “Avenue 5” to a be a satire of “Star Trek” or “Star Wars,” Iannucci says he deliberately sought to steer clear of “teleporting and aliens” and root the series in the reality of its characters.
“More immediately I was looking at the change over last few years in social behavior becoming much frenetic. Not just the way social media makes people get into camps and be explosive with each other, but crowds in terms of voting in slightly unorthodox ways, and populist political parties emerging — just that looming sense of danger that seems years away but we know might happen soon and what we’re going to do about it,” he says.
Josh Gad, who plays Richard Branson-eqsue space travel entrepreneur Herman Judd, admits he was surprised at the direction that Iannucci was choosing to go in post-“Veep” when he read the scripts. However, it soon dawned on him that setting the series 40 years in the future and in space was a device Iannucci was using to give the series a certain amount of distance, while retaining familiarity to today’s world.
“It’s very difficult to satirize that which is so absurd in terms of current events. You could say current politics no longer lends itself to satire. In order to do a commentary on events that we’re witnessing and living through right now, you need to take it out of a place and time so audiences can reflect on it in a different way,” Gad says.
While the setting may be different to “Veep” or “The Thick of It,” both Gad and Laurie see plenty of connective tissue between “Avenue 5” and Iannucci’s previous work, particularly in his proclivity for creating claustrophobia and unbearable tension between his characters.
“What this has in common with those other shows is the relish he takes from confining a group of characters in a pressurized, stressful situation and watching them tear each other to pieces. It’s a big Standford Prison experiment,” Laurie says.
“Avenue 5” may not be as overtly political on the surface as Iannucci’s previous work, but the showrunner teases that the series will explore what the state of politics on Earth has become, with Nikki Amuka-Bird’s character, who is left to deal with the “media sh–storm” on Earth while the ship is stranded up on space, and visiting a White House which may not be inhabited by only a single president.
“I’m sure people will spend the first few episodes wondering if it is going to be like ‘Veep.’ With anything it always takes a little while with people not to come in with the last thing in their head,” he says. “The rapid fire insults of ‘Veep’ grew because of the setting it inhabited, it was a frenetic, cutthroat world, but this is about survival and people discovering who they are and whether they have anything worthwhile to contribute to the common good, or whether they’re just here for the ride and they’ll be first out of the air lock if things get desperate.”
“Avenue 5” premieres Jan. 19 on HBO.