Gently re-framing those ideas – the leader struggling for reassurance, and a vastly expensive space program foiled by a tiny glitch – into the corporation-driven present day, the new series sends us into outer space aboard the gleaming starship Avenue 5.
The ship, a sort of Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner-to-the-stars, owned by a Richard Branson-type tycoon who is all slogans and few genuine ideas, is run using automatic systems and packed with wealthy holidaymakers who have no idea their world is about to unravel.
After The Thick of It and Veep, Iannucci says he “did not feel like I wanted to do another political show. But actually I did want to touch on certain… not themes, but sort of emotions, that are around just now”.
“There’s an air of uncertainty and unpredictability and anger and anxiety and a sense of foreboding doom about the climate and nobody’s really doing anything about it,” Iannucci says, “and just that sense of, I think, the madness of crowds, populism and how crowds can take on a life of their own.”
Putting those ideas into the pressure cooker of a long-range starship that’s been knocked off course by an engineering mishap, and mixing disaster movie tropes with “six-and-a-half thousand people, 5000 passengers, 1500 crew” is how Avenue 5 was born.
In the opening episode, a malfunction swerves the ship off course, turning an eight-week voyage into one which will last more than three years. Complicating matters: Herman Judd (Josh Gad), the Branson-esque billionaire owner of Avenue 5 is on board, and the only genuinely qualified engineer is killed in the accident.
The series stars Hugh Laurie as Captain Ryan Clark, who we discover is little more than a headshot hired for the brochures, Rebecca Front as Karen Kelly, a pushy passenger who emerges as a legitimate contender to take charge in the crisis, and Lenora Crichlow as Billie McEvoy, the ship’s second engineer, and the only person on board with any actual technical skill.
The most curious element of the series is perhaps that, despite the sustained popularity of science fiction as a genre, sci-fi comedies are notoriously tough to get right.
In broadly historic terms, the British comedies The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf are two of the few successes in the hybrid genre, with an honourable mention to Quark, a ’70s sci-fi comedy which lasted just one season but was repeated heavily and gained a cult following in Australia.
More recently the US comedy/action series The Orville has carved a space, though it borrows heavily, in tonal terms, from the 1990s-era Star Trek programs. In more than half a century of television, those aren’t huge numbers.
Iannucci describes Avenue 5 as set in the short-term future and not consciously futuristic. Nor will it lose itself in too much techno-babble.
“It’s set only about 30 or 40 years in the future,” he says. “If you think about what life was like 40 years ago in 1980, not radically different. I mean, all the buildings look the same. Cars are roughly doing the same job. The only innovation has been Wi-Fi and the fact that we stay on our phone.
“I didn’t want to go mega-futuristic with lots of gadgets and robots and flying this and hover boots and stuff. Because, you know, other shows do that really well, I wanted to concentrate on the human element underneath it all. So I think the only major advance has been that we can fly further in space, and hopefully get back. Even though we have an enormous set, I have tried to keep it as intimate as possible because the comedy is there in the small, private moments.”
The series is not consciously allegorical, Iannucci adds, though as the story unfurls, it will ask existential questions of the characters who are stranded on the ship.
“I never went to HBO and said, ‘My next one’s an allegory,’ but it is,” he says. “I want it to kind of feed off that general, slightly indefinable sense of unease that people have at the moment. And there is a point I think [in the later episodes] where something happens that you then realise this ship is sort of a metaphor, it can go in any direction in terms of the themes we want to look at.
“You get to the situation where people have to question their whole existence,” he adds. “If you’re asking for people who have skills to come forward, you then get lots of people asking themselves, ‘Well, I work in a bank, is that a skill that is of any use?’ It gives people a chance to find themselves.”
Avenue 5 airs at 8.30pm Tuesdays on FOX Showcase.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.