Hugh Laurie on Working With ‘Almost Too Funny’ Josh Gad in ‘Avenue 5’ Season 2
You may have experienced a nightmare travel delay in the last year, but rest assured, you had it better than the passengers on HBO’s Avenue 5. The astronomically funny social satire from Veep creator Armando Iannucci is set 40 years in the future, when 5,000 people have embarked on an eight-week round-trip luxury cruise to Saturn on the spaceship Avenue 5.
In the first season, one outrageous problem after another arose on the vessel owned by narcissistic billionaire Herman Judd (Josh Gad) and allegedly captained by Hugh Laurie’s fraud Ryan Clark: from leaked human waste orbiting the ship (“our illuminated circle of turds,” as Zach Woods’ head of customer relations Matt Spencer dubbed it) to being knocked off course twice. As of the March 2020 finale, their scheduled arrival time back to Earth is eight years. Season 2 picks up five months later, and Ryan — who’s really an actor with an affinity for accents, alcohol and throuples — has yet to inform the passengers of the massive setback and accompanying food shortage. They think they’re due home in a month.
“Ryan has a fear of being found out, of not measuring up, which I suppose is a dread almost all human beings have — all the human beings that I actually like have,” says Laurie. “He has this incredible anxiety knowing that he has no qualifications, no expertise. He’s merely a figurehead and suddenly has to be a figure body. There’s a state of constant panic.”
The good news for fans of the chaos: Things will get worse before they get…even worse. As Season 2 begins, another unintended course change sends the ship careening toward the sun, and by the time we’re halfway through the eight-episode run, a potential killer may have come on board.
“What’s coming up: fascism and authoritarianism, democracy and heroism, a fight for existence, a death lottery. All the usual tropes you’d get in any sitcom,” Iannucci says with a laugh. To help create this devil’s shopping list of predicaments, Iannucci asked the cast what they imagined were their characters’ worst fears and biggest aspirations.
For Laurie, the show has a hard time keeping up with real-world craziness. “Whatever you think is an extreme narrative development is then surpassed by what you see on CNN that same night,” says the British actor. “I feel like there is more logic and a more sincere attempt to do things efficiently and decently on board Avenue 5 than in many parts of the world at the moment.”
Working hardest at that is smart, frustrated second engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow), who is desperately trying to save the eels that are now used as food — and get them to reproduce. Mission Control’s socially awkward Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who got trapped on board after a shuttle mix-up, earnestly presents one solution for the impending hunger crisis, but it’s so inhumane, it horrifies the top brass.
Then there’s passenger Frank Kelly (Andy Buckley), who lived under his overbearing wife Karen’s (Rebecca Front) shadow last season. After she inadvertently caused the eight-year detour, the tables have turned: He’s now a ship celebrity, starring in his own closed-circuit TV cooking show to boost passenger morale.
Back on Earth, the Avenue 5 crew’s saga has been turned into a melodramatic streaming series, which, in Iannucci’s deft hands, parodies self-serious sci-fi. Everyone is good-looking, like triple-threat stage and screen actor Julian Ovenden (Bridgerton), who plays the captain. “It was interesting to have the casting director’s idea of what our characters would look like if they were handsome,” quips Laurie. “[Fictional Ryan] comes from the proper heroic mold, whereas with real Ryan, the mold is, well…moldy.”
Meanwhile, Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura), Judd’s Type-A righthand woman, aka the Judd Whisperer, attempts a press tour to rally support, but her plea for help is drowned out by gossip. Plus, a new suit, Lucas Sato (Arsher Ali), shows up at Mission Control from the mysterious “Office of the Other President.” Hints Iannucci, “The fate of the ship, if they had their way, is not good.”
Of course, Ryan’s worst fears will inevitably materialize. The passengers will learn the truth and turn on the leaders. “Ryan and Judd are locked in a temporary brig and strangely bond,” Laurie teases, adding that he finds Gad almost too funny to work with: “We’ve had many scenes that we’ve struggled to get through. A proper teacher would split us up.”
Whether or not Ryan makes it home, Laurie feels like he’s come full circle. The House star launched his TV career on U.K. sketch shows and comedies. “In some ways, it’s where I started, trying to make people laugh and failing daily,” the self-deprecating 10-time Emmy nominee says. With Avenue 5, that failure is not an option.
Avenue 5, Season Premiere Monday, October 10, 10/9c, HBO