Armando Iannucci’s new HBO comedy “Avenue 5” is setting out to depict what the world will look like in 40 years with the “evolution or de-evolution, as it were, of entrepreneurs,” series star Josh Gad said at the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show on Wednesday.
Gad’s character, Herman Judd, is one such entrepreneur, a man who admires the Elon Musks and Richard Bransons of the world but is modeled more on the Billy McFarland (of “Fyre Festival” infamy) and Elizabeth Holmes (of Theranos). Gad called the latter two, and his character by extension, “these great sales people who have nothing worthy of selling.”
While Alex Gibney’s documentary on Holmes, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” which aired on HBO last year, pointed out she wore mock turtlenecks in order to evoke Steve Jobs, “we decided, wouldn’t it be great if Judd has his hair done like Richard Branson?” Gad said.
Iannucci added that Judd “collects historical artifacts,” including Branson’s beard. The show will “reveal how [Branson] died, which is not as expected,” he said.
Although the series is set four decades from today and important figures like Branson no longer exist in the world, Iannucci said he “wanted to deliberately not be too futuristic” in most areas of the show. Citing how since the 1980s the world is “not radically different — all the buildings look the same, the cars. The only innovation has been WiFi and the fact that we stare at our phones,” Iannucci said, he wanted to “focus on the human element underneath it all.”
Since the show is set half on Earth and half orbiting the earth as space tourism goes wrong, the big “advance has been that we can fly further in space — and hopefully get back,” he continued.
Hugh Laurie plays Ryan Clark, who is tasked with being the captain of this space tourism ship that gets knocked off-course and will suddenly take years to return its 5,000 passengers and 1,500 crew members back home. While that premise is not as overtly political as Iannucci’s previous HBO comedy, “Veep,” he shared there are certain emotions that both shows have in common.
“There’s an air of unpredictability and anger and anxiety and sense of foreboding about the climate and nobody’s really doing anything about it,” he said, noting “populism and how crowds can take on a life of their own.”
Such is certainly the case with the passengers who, led by Rebecca Front’s Karen Kelly, get much more involved in the goings-on of the ship once they learn that what was once designed to be a vacation was now their new lives.
“The comedy’s really there in the small moments,” Iannucci said. “Also, I love sci-fi so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be good to put this in the pressure cooker of space?'”
By the sixth episode, Iannucci said, the show moves beyond being about “the voyage and people stranded in space” to become more of a metaphor for the “unease” that people are experiencing not only in today’s political climate, but also from a more existential place deep within them.
“People have to question their own existence,” Iannucci said of the characters on the show. “If you ask people with skills to come forward, you have people questioning, ‘Well, if I work in a bank, is that a skill?'” This is an opportunity for people to “try out new personalities,” he continued, and that “starts from this sense of unpredictable unease of the moment.”
Speaking to the high-intensity of the situation these characters find themselves in, even though it is a comedy, the situation is played very realistically, and therefore the dangers of being trapped in close quarters, flying through the air are very much a part of the show. Questions about food and fuel supply, as well as the competence of the crew come into play. Safety is not guaranteed.
“It’s the ‘Game of Thrones’ of comedy,” Gad half-joked in regards to the “big body count.”
“Avenue 5” premieres Jan. 19 on HBO.