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On HBO’s new ‘Avenue 5,’ a cruise ship in space collides with mediocre humor

Sci-fi comedy series starring Hugh Laurie, premiering Sunday, relies on humor that’s weak and sometimes gross.

Hugh Laurie plays the captain of a cruise ship in space on “Avenue 5.”
Hugh Laurie plays the captain of a cruise ship in space on “Avenue 5.”
HBO

In space, no one can hear you laugh.

At least not when it comes to “Avenue 5,” the big-ticket new HBO sci-fi comedy series from “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci.

“Veep” was a finely crafted, boundary-pushing, brilliant political satire — one of the best comedies of the 21st century. “Avenue 5” is a clunky, stumbling, ham-handed misfire, with a stellar cast desperately trying to wring laughs out of mostly flat one-liners, not to mention some deeply unfunny visual gags that might literally make you gag.

That’s no exaggeration. There’s an entire storyline building to a scene in which there’s literally a s----storm in outer space. Great.

Hugh Laurie, who was spectacularly good in a recurring role as Sen. Tom James in the aforementioned “Veep” and, of course, brought down the “House” in the long-running Fox medical drama series, plays Ryan Clark, captain of the luxury space liner Avenue 5, which is embarking on its maiden voyage.

Think of the largest cruise ship in the world times multiplied by 100 sailing around Jupiter.

Clark, who is revered as a hero for his lifesaving actions aboard the cruise ship Avenue 3 when it caught fire, has the dashing demeanor, commanding presence and crisp uniform of a man in charge.

Whether Clark is bantering with starstruck passengers or dropping in on Mission Control, where the adoring crew hangs on his every word, this is his ship, and everyone is convinced they’re in great hands.

Or … are they?

In the first four episodes alone, Clark is faced with a season’s worth of plot challenges and character reveals. As talented as Laurie is, it comes across as if he’s still wrestling with exactly how to portray this guy. There’s no lack of effort. But we can see the strain of the acting from across the room.

After a major malfunction rocks the ship, sending passengers tumbling this way and that (“Avenue 5” digs the gravity jokes), it becomes clear that just about everyone working on this ship is either incompetent — or wildly, grossly, criminally incompetent.

The accident knocks Avenue 5 off course, and a scheduled eight-week cruise could stretch to six months or even three years.

If they ever get home at all.

The always funny Josh Gad scores some laughs as Herman Judd, the ridiculous, pompous and quite stupid multibillionaire who owns the ship. (Judd thinks his wealth is confirmation of his genius. He believes he’s never had a bad idea, when, in fact, ALL of his ideas are bad. Really bad.)

Suzy Nakamura adds deadpan humor as Iris, who works as Judd’s right-hand person, meaning she’s tasked with saving Judd and the universe from Judd’s horrible ideas.

Suzy Nakamura plays an aide to the billionaire ship owner on “Avenue 5.”
Suzy Nakamura plays an aide to the billionaire ship owner on “Avenue 5.”
HBO

Zach Woods from “The Office” and “Silicon Valley” and, yes, “Veep,” plays the dark and creepy Matt, the head of customer relations, because, of course, you want someone dark and creepy for that job, right? (When there’s a death on the ship, Matt tells the passengers, “If it’s any consolation, he had very few loved ones.”)

As for those passengers, the main characters include a married couple (Jessica St. Clair and Kyle Bornheimer) who are forever screaming their hatred for one another, and a pain-in-the-neck harridan (Rebecca Front) who takes it upon herself to speak for the entire group and constantly gets in the face of the captain, demanding answers.

These setups are as shrill and unfunny as they sound.

From time to time “Avenue 5” communicates with Mission Control back on Earth, though it’s extremely difficult to carry on a conversation when there’s a 26-second delay. (It’s an admittedly funny bit that begins to wear out its welcome by the third or fourth episode.)

“Avenue 5” has impressive visuals and cool sets. Aand every once in a while, someone from the gifted cast makes contact with a real zinger. Mostly, though, this is a stunningly off-key effort, delivered in a broad and ear-shattering tone.