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Television

Review: James Bond. Elon Musk. No one is safe from two new TV series’ expert satire

Hugh Laurie in ‘Avenue 5'
Hugh Laurie in Armando Iannucci’s follow-up to “Veep,” HBO’s “Avenue 5.”
(Alex Bailey / HBO)

Every sort of drama eventually will be ground up for comedy. Two puckish new television series play tricks with typically straight-faced forms: “Avenue 5,” which premieres Sunday on HBO, is a disaster story set on an interplanetary cruise ship; “Medical Police,” already streaming on Netflix, is an international thriller with a bioterrorism theme.

“Avenue 5,” in which Hugh Laurie stars as a space captain — or “captain,” as events will reveal — comes from Armando Iannucci, the creator of “Veep,” which descends spiritually from his film “In the Loop,” which in turn descends from the British series “The Thick of It,” all set against a backdrop of politics. (“Avenue 5” employs writers and actors from those projects.) He is also notably the cocreator with Steve Coogan of what might be called “The Alan Partridge Saga,” a series of radio, television and film adventures about a terrible yet durable talk show host.

His new series is set on a grand interplanetary cruise ship — perhaps a play on the commercial fantasies of billionaire space nuts like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — in what seems to be, in most respects, the near future. The CEO of this enterprise, on board for no stated reason, is Herman Judd (Josh Gad), whose enormous success negates the fact that he is an idiot. A large ego in an amorphous package — he seems a little stoned most of the time, and would like to be regarded as a warm person without caring for people particularly — he will explode in fits of pique or self-approval. “I’m basically Zeus,” he says (and believes).

Like “Veep,” “Avenue 5” is more about power dynamics than it is a pointed satire of its milieu, a story of mediocrity running a big ship. The setting does open opportunities for specific jokes, about, for instance, a coffin orbiting the ship in view of the passengers, or human waste used as a radiation shield, or what happens when the artificial gravity flips and essentially turns the ship briefly upside down. (It’s like a “Poseidon Adventure” where the bar stays open.) But toxic organizations and personal relations are its subject.

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A running gag about a 26-second communications delay with Earth is also the engine that produces the accident that sets the ship off course and into a television series. Laurie’s Capt. Ryan Clark, we will soon learn — mild spoiler ahead, if you would like to change course yourself — is merely an actor, “a beard in a Sgt. Pepper uniform,” hired to give passengers the impression of a capable, friendly human at the helm. (“Set your phasers to fun,” he will tell them, as he makes his rounds.)

A “Veep”-ish band of characters fills out the crew. Judd has an assistant, Iris (Suzy Nakamura), at once smarter than and subservient to him; Matt (Zach Woods) is a passenger liaison completely lacking in empathy; Spike (Ethan Phillips) the wreck of a former astronaut around for show. Billie (Lenora Crichlow), who works in the unglamorous bowels of the ship, where things are made to happen — it’s the usual comic impression of an IT department, but in space.

Passengers include Kyle Bornheimer and Jessica St. Clair as Doug and Mia, a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, and British comedy treasure Rebecca Front as Karen, a demanding (American) passenger. (Judd to Karen, shaking her hand: “Your nails are very long and very sharp.” Karen: “Thank you. I’ve been practicing my handshake since grade school.”) Back on Earth, Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Rav attempts to supply ground control, with a 26-second delay.

“Medical Police” on Netflix
Erinn Hayes, left, and Rob Huebel in the Netflix counterterrorism spoof “Medical Police.”
(Netflix)

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Created by Rob Corddry, Krister Johnson, Jonathan Stern and David Wain, “Medical Police” spins off from the short-form Adult Swim comedy “Childrens Hospital.” Where “Avenue 5” evinces little interest in the tropes of science fiction, “Medical Police” is very much a parody of a globe-trotting action show. The narrative structure and camera placement, the performances and the pacing, are all spot on, the action scenes — which do pause for comedy — impressively executed. (The series begins, Bond-like, in actual free-fall.) If you took out the jokes, you’d still have a relatively straightforward, intelligible thriller.

“Childrens Hospital” regulars Rob Huebel and Erinn Hayes play Owen Maestro and Dr. Lola Adolf Spratt, American doctors working in Brazil — a random joke that will be explained with comical explicitness for newcomers. In the course of researching a mysterious and powerful new virus — “It’s not like global warming, you can’t just wish it away” — they come into contact with a “black ops” arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and find themselves made “provisional agents” on the trail of a bioterrorist. (Netflix money allows for actual international locations, though whether they represent the places they’re said to, I couldn’t say.)

Various players from “Childrens Hospital” poke their heads in, including Lake Bell, Henry Winkler, Malin Akerman, Ken Marino and the inevitable Jon Hamm. Notable among the new faces is Jason Schwartzman in an excellent turn as “The Goldfinch,” a foreign agent of vague origin, accent and allegiances. “I work for myself, and for everyone,” he tells Owen and Lola. “But for no one. I mean, for my country. And for yours too. And for the entire world. And for myself. I already said myself?”

It would be wrong to make too great claims for either series. Their ambitions are relatively modest in a day when Greatness Is All. But greatness can be overrated, and both series are expertly played, with more than a modicum of good jokes and enough plot to keep you going, made by intelligent people unafraid to look dumb. Or to go low: Neither is exactly family viewing.

In most respects, and like most Iannucci projects, “Avenue 5” has little to no heart; sentiment is not the point. There are few characters to root for — Laurie’s captain, you do like a little, because it’s Laurie, and his character has a lifelike sense of shame and woe. And Billie, because she knows what’s going wrong and tries to right it, seems as much of a heroine as the series will propose. But most characters simply prove good bad company while they go about their self-serving, or merely self-preserving, business. (I have seen only four episodes out of 10; things may change.)

“Medical Police” is a warmer, even a sunny show. (Perhaps because it’s on Netflix, the People’s Platform, it’s less twisted than “Childrens Hospital.”) Huebel and Hayes have a goofy, mutually compatible charm; as heroes, they’re inflatable punching clowns that bounce back from everything. That people are dying somewhere off camera hardly matters. There is a comedy to make.

‘Avenue 5’

Where: HBO

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When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

‘Medical Police’

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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