Television

Avenue 5 Transformed a Villainous Internet Meme Into the Show’s Best Character

Rebecca Front stands at the front of a crowd of people, glaring. Andy Buckley hovers over her shoulder.
Karen (Rebecca Front) with her loyal husband, Frank (Andy Buckley).
HBO

Avenue 5, the latest HBO comedy from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, has received so-so reviews, with critics calling it a “not terribly funny workplace comedy” populated by “broad cartoon characters.” But on this spaceship cruise gone wrong, one such character rises above the rest: Karen Kelly, played by Rebecca Front. The name “Karen” has come to stand for a particular kind of contemporary villain with a soccer mom aesthetic and a penchant for demanding to speak to the manager. It is now officially defined on Dictionary.com as “a mocking slang term for an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman.” There’s even a subreddit with 474,000 members dedicated to identifying bad “Karen” behavior.

Initially, Karen Kelly seems like just another example of that archetype. Karen’s first few appearances on Avenue 5 all involve her making some complaint about the service aboard the cruise ship, whether it’s the view from her room or receiving the wrong breakfast order. Discovering that Karen is on this trip for free—in place of her sister, who actually purchased the tickets—only emphasizes even more how demanding she is. Karen is fully aware that she is interfering and pedantic, and she makes no apologies for those qualities. When a series of accidents befalls the spaceship, including one that knocks the ship off its original course, extending the length of the trip, incompetence abounds, providing opportunities for competent upstarts like Karen to shine.

At first, Karen’s role aboard Avenue 5 is unofficial; she is simply the first person to speak up. For example, she interrupts Capt. Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) in the middle of a placating speech to passengers to ask him about the corpse currently circling the spaceship like a satellite, locked in by the ship’s gravitational pull. She strong-arms and smooth-talks her way past a security guard and into a closed-door meeting, where she finds out about the change in course. Karen instinctively understands that to announce this willy-nilly to passengers aboard would only worsen the situation, so she takes Ryan aside and confronts him privately. “We’ve got an S-storm brewing, and this A-hole is not helping,” she says, in reference to the bumbling head of customer relations, played by Zach Woods. (Karen is the rare Iannucci character who doesn’t swear, contributing further to her suburban mom persona.)

Though Ryan initially regarded Karen as a nuisance, he recognizes her unique talents and how he can use them to his benefit. “I can’t help noticing that you have a very special way of handling passengers. Maybe you and I can talk about how we can harness these people-wrangling skills,” he tells her. Karen’s new job of “passenger liaison officer” is, in effect, to do what she was already doing—taking charge—but in a collaborative rather than combative spirit. Her first task is to announce to the passengers that the journey, which was initially supposed to be just a few weeks, then a few months, is going to be even longer than they thought: three years and six months. Karen lies and frames this as a personal negotiation that she made on behalf of the passengers. “A little while ago, we were all told that our journey time was going to be six months. There’s been an update. I was just told five years. The engineers said that it would be five years. And I refused to accept it.” (Karen’s wimpy husband, Frank, played by Andy Buckley, here chimes in, unnecessarily but with admirable devotion, “She simply refused. It was a very exciting moment.”) Karen continues: “And eventually, they caved. They said, ‘Karen, for you, we’re gonna make it four years.’ I said, ‘Four years? If you can’t come back to me with 3½ years, we’re done here.’ So you know what they came back to me with? Three and a half years, people. Boom!”

It doesn’t matter that these made-up boardroom negotiations don’t make any sense—how could Karen’s demands possibly change the engineers’ calculations? Karen smartly starts by making the situation seem worse than it is and casting herself as the hero of the story so that the extra three years news is met with applause and words of praise like “Hardball!” and “You did it, chief!” But Karen’s qualities as leader aren’t just limited to public relations stunts. Although her motives are never purely selfless—her new role comes with a suite upgrade and the thrill of power—she takes charge because she truly believes her leadership is necessary. At one point, following one of the ship’s many minor accidents, she uses it to help her fellow passengers. “I’m gonna do a full inventory of human damage,” she announces and then proceeds to direct their anxious energy into a rallying cry. “No more will we be treated like cattle—if anyone can remember them. Today we start to fight back!” The scene ends with the previously panicked crowd chanting her name.

Karen gets no redemption arc or any real character development; all her qualities, both positive (like her patronizing but ultimately loving attitude toward Frank) and negative (like her patronizing attitude toward literally everyone else), are on display from the very beginning. She doesn’t become less insistent or demanding throughout the season, even during the evolution of her career on the ship. Karen Kelly isn’t so much a subversion of the Karen stereotype as it is an embrace of it. It’s one small step for Karen, one giant leap for Karenkind.