This review contains spoilers.
1.3 I’m A Hand Model
In space no one can hear you scream. This is doubly true when you’re wrapped up like a mummy in a transcendental body wrap at a spa floating through the stratosphere. Avenue 5, episode 3, “I’m a Hand Model,” opens with a graphic reminder of the zombies which were introduced at the close of the last episode. The crew laid its most useful member to rest by shooting him off to space, but his sarcophagus was so heavy it didn’t get far enough away from the ship and is now circling in a macabre orbit. Three passengers who succumbed to injuries from the gravity flip disaster were also dispatched to space and now circle the engineer’s coffin, borrowed from the owner of Avenue 5, in a traumatic reminder of real horrors to come.
Besides a linen shortage which even NASA couldn’t have calculated, the guests are also facing a shortage of courtesy from the on-flight staff, who are fashioning the towels into obscene body parts. The true terror comes from who is in charge of taking care of things. Ineptitude and arrogance go hand in hand on Avenue 5, but this isn’t the kind of reckless megalomania which forced Captain Kirk to personally head every landing party on the original Star Trek. This is the supreme self-centeredness of the successful entrepreneur who has no consideration of the people he’s supposed to be catering to. Herman Judd (Josh Gad) is a master of clueless self-awareness. He is a self-made man who thinks he can create reality, He conjures science itself as though he invented it and lets nothing get in the way of his self-esteem.
Matt Spencer (Zach Woods) has a gift for making any situation incrementally worse than it has to be. It isn’t just that he’s “been a wild kind of useless,” as Captain Clark (Hugh Laurie) describes before quickly hustling him away from the passengers, but his uselessness infects others. Gad and Woods feed into each other seamlessly. Early in the episode Herman uses energy bars to illustrate how the rescue mission is going to work. Matt points out that the ship and the earth must be the same size because the bars are the same. Rather than give an executive command, Herman bites a piece off the energy bar and spits it across the room. His attention deficit latches on to Matt’s passive obsessive disorder to form a new trajectory for the joke. The other masterful thing he does is reframe Iris’ negativity as a conversational minor key.
Laurie is wonderful. He changes continents, careers and accents throughout while trying to stay afloat. Just when you think he really is the most reasoned thinker on the ship, he does something casually stupid. It doesn’t seem too bad while he’s doing it. It appears to make perfect sense. The cringe factor comes in later when the oversight becomes apparent. The Captain’s veiled transparency also runs consistently off course. Not only can’t he keep a secret, but his first instinct is consistently to come clean to exactly the perfectly wrong person to hear it.
Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front) doesn’t curse, which is strange on HBO. She replaces words with letters: mother f-ing, f me with a CB, which stands for cheese baguette, which isn’t even a swear word, but she goes with it. Filling in the blanks becomes both fun and frustrating. But her most exasperating is her best. It is practically a tease with all the erotic energy neutralized well in advance. Karen accepts the title of passenger liaison and the first class cabin which goes with it, but sex is not on the table. You can almost see Captain Clark searching that room to make sure all the tables are accounted for. Laurie infuses so many of his lines with non-verbal comedy he is actually pulling comic double duty on top of the varied characters he’s playing as one. He’s the authority, he’s not the authority. He knows what’s happening, he’s clueless. He’s American, he’s John Cleese, and Avenue 5 is his Fawlty Towers.
The most competent crewmember on board is second engineer Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) and she’s a reluctant Polly Sherman. Billie knows everything that’s going on, main and backstage. She is the only person on board who knows what a flitter emitter does, and she uses that to expose the bridge personnel for what they are: Actors who don’t know the difference between Lost in Space and Event Horizon. Judd wanted a hot crew and there is no intersection in that venn diagram. The most capable of the cast is a hand model, which comes in handily when she has to change the lights from normal to dramatic for guests on the bridge. Sadly, they’ve been in character for four months and it’s beginning to wear on them creatively.
There is a series of big reveals which come out like the baptism scene in The Godfather, only far less artistically. Karen tackles her first assignment, selling the passengers on the time added to the added time of the space journey, by acting like a union negotiator who forces a company to cave to their demands. Cyrus (Neil Casey) doubles down on his trajectory porn just before it comes back to bite him on the ass. He cryptically suggests the trip could be shorter if the ship could somehow lose about 500 people.
Avenue 5 is loaded with cynicism, but unlike Veep, where it was brutal and occasionally shocking, it is merely creepy here. This is because it is in furtherance of corporate greed rather than political service. We will never like Herman as much as we liked Selina, even at her least likable, because he came in with all of his entitlement. He is entitled to everything from his opinion, which is immediately seconded by Iris (Suzy Nakamura), to his plausible deniability. On earth, the head of ground control Rav (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is at first heartened to learn a vigil is being held for the lost space travelers, but sees it as only very sad when she sees how tiny the turnout really is. Herman cynically declares the company has to shit on that vigil, and suggests hiring sad looking, non-union actors to play the mourners. He even goes over headshots.
Armando Iannucci‘s shows have a tendency to grow very dark as they go on. I believe we are seeing light comic foreshadowing of some heavy dark as this series moves into a second season. Karen’s husband is caustically served the wrong meal. It’s a good meal, just a different dead animal on the plate, and it’s a delicious mistake. Karen, of course, will not have this. She thinks the guests will wind up eating mystery meat out of troughs by the end of the trip. Personally, I think I wouldn’t mind if her husband becomes the first mysterious meal. “The Hand Model” feels like an appetizer for the cosmic catastrophe to come.