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HBO’s ‘Avenue 5’ asks what happens if tech bros conquer space

Blue-sky thinking and a reality distortion field can't beat astrophysics.
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Alex Bailey / HBO

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If you thought that HBO was done mocking technology companies now that Silicon Valley is done, think again. Avenue 5 is the channel's new sitcom, and one that asks the question: "What if tech bros were in charge of more than just our internet histories?'" The answer, at least according to the first half of the season, is that it won't be pretty -- or safe.

Starring Hugh Laurie, Suzy Nakamura, Josh Gad and Lenora Crichlow, the show is a half-hour dramedy from Armando Iannucci, whose previous credits include Veep, The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin. It's the least political work Iannucci has made for some time, since its focus isn't on the people in the corridors of power, but people (mostly) trying to survive in space

The Avenue 5 is a large space liner that, in the words of cinematographer Eben Bolter, is designed after a vulgar space hotel that goes too far and "gets the details wrong". This Titanic-like vessel and its 5,000 passengers are on a routine jaunt through the solar system when a minor disaster strikes, and its course is altered. But this is space, where a small deviation changes the flight time from eight weeks to several years.

The ship is owned by Herman Judd (Josh Gad) of the Judd Corporation, a self-regarding business magnate who, in Bolter's mind, has "only ever had one good idea." He's not quite an analog for the Bezoses and Musks you may be thinking of, but more a cracked-mirror version of both. Throughout the show, he attempts to impose his thinking on the crisis as if he was still in California, or wherever Silicon Valley moved after the show's alluded-to Huawei Wars.

Early on, Judd is presented with the intractable problem of space physics, and he hopes to fix things as he did on Earth. He says, in the Jobsian tradition, that you can make something happen by making someone say that it can. The fight between visionary optimism and reality is harder when you're surrounded by an infinite vacuum, after all.

Avenue 5

Avenue 5's point seems to be that you can't simply blue-sky your way out of a crisis when reality keeps getting in the way. Because the show is set in a vulnerable, barely functional vessel in space, the stakes are constantly getting higher. And, quite regularly, it takes turns being dark, grisly and at some points, deeply macabre. Bolter says that later on, the story takes an even darker turn and made an allusion to how grisly Game of Thrones could get in its pomp.

The show may be dark, but its visuals are bright and bathed in primary colors, a clash that's intentional. Bolter told Engadget that the team was keen to avoid the "blue hues" and "colder, desaturated, bleach-bypass-looking world" of sci-fi. The sets cover every color in the spectrum across the series, except purple, which is reserved for the Earthbound mission control set.

Another thing that the show makes clear is the tech bro's disdain for the patient, sometimes unsexy work of space business. NASA, which is ready and capable of stepping in to fix the situation, is ignored and mocked from the start. Much like how companies today have thrown time, money and resources to fight regulation and the imposition of proper safety rules.

There's also the recurring theme -- said by Zach Woods' anarchic character Matt Spencer early in the first episode -- that if you don't like something "you're wrong." This sort of thinking, refusing to accept expert advice that doesn't fit your skewed worldview, reminds us a little of Travis Kalanick. Not to mention everyone's near-fatal obsession with the trappings of genius and appearance over the genuinely able characters, who are often ignored or shouted down.

The show also makes a subtle point about how in control we are of our lives when they're so entrenched in technology. In a world of smart homes, we're in control of our environments, but we're often not in control of our circumstances.

Although the benefits of smart home technology did make lighting the show a lot easier than it would have been a decade ago. Three miles of RGB LEDs built into the walls and ceilings lit Avenue 5's set. That enabled the crew to make on-the-spot changes while filming and craft different presets to show the progression of time across each day.

Bolter added that the production team developed a rainbow "party mode" with the lights to instantly simulate a disco on board. But, despite looking spectacular, there wasn't a reason in the story to use it, but perhaps that's one reason we should hope for a second series.

If you're looking for a comparison, Avenue 5 most resembles The Good Place in terms of its stress-inducing, propulsive storyline. Although some of its story seems to resemble, at least on a surface level, the Swedish dystopia Aniara released back in 2018.

Avenue 5 may be a sitcom, but producers did incorporate real-world thinking about how to survive the dangers of space travel. Bolter conceded that he used dramatic license with the visuals, since Saturn "should be on the other side of the ship," but he wanted to see it out of a window. One thing that is true is the suggestion that human feces should line the exterior of the ship as an effective radiation shield for people traveling through space -- originally posited by the doomed Inspiration Mars mission. Here, it's played for laughs, since not only are these characters in deep shit figuratively, but... you can work out the punchline for yourself.

Avenue 5 premieres on January 19th at 10pm on HBO.

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