While his love for Star Trek is unquestionable, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville struggles to balance humor and drama
The Show: The Orville
The Network: Fox
The Genre: Science Fiction, Comedy, Drama
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: The Orville, helmed by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy, American Dad, and Ted fame, is a science fiction dramedy. Inspired by his love of Star Trek, the show is centered around Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), a man living in the 25th century who is given his first starship command. Friend and expert helmsman Lieutenant Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), Lieutenant John LaMarr (J. Lee), Chief Security Officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), Lieutenant Commander Bortus (Peter Macon), Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), and Isaac (Mark Jackson) round out his initial crew.
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As the series begins, Ed’s excitement over commanding The Orville is marred by the news that his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), will be his XO. Determined to make the best of the situation, Ed takes the ship and crew on an exploratory journey into space. Their first missions include fending off a Krill attempt to steal technology, becoming zoo exhibits to a superior race, facing off with the Moclan high council, and save a race from certain death. Throughout his travels, Ed must come to terms with his unresolved feelings of betrayal and make amends with Kelly. He must also learn what it really takes to captain The Orville and protect and adapt to its diverse crew. Can he do it all? Will he figure out how to work with his ex? There’s only one way to find out!
The Union may be more advanced, but it still faces the same old problems
In The Orville, there is a blending of universal themes and unique issues that come up in the show. In the first four episodes, we’ve seen the crew act as diplomats, explorers, and defenders. We’ve also seen them face more mundane challenges like getting along with your ex, drinking on the job, and learning to be a leader. In “About a Girl,” everyone considered their views on parental rights when Bortus requests a gender reassignment surgery for his daughter. It also addressed traditional perceptions of gender, with humans and Moclans acting as representatives of the opposing sides.
Advocate: Are there cultures within the Union who circumcise their offspring?
Claire: Yes, there are some.
Advocate: Doctor, if a member of one of those races asked you to circumcise their infant, would you refuse?
Claire: That’s completely different.
Advocate: How? It is a significant bodily alteration, and the infant has no say in the matter.
Claire: A circumcision is not a life-altering scenario.
Advocate: And a life-altering scenario would be unfair to the child.
Claire: Yes, it would.
Avocate: A life-altering scenario, such as a child shunned by Moclan society, planet-wide, that would be unfair indeed. Thank you, Doctor, you’ve made my argument for me.
One of the things that is so great about science fiction is its ability to expand our horizons. The Orville’s mix of plotlines grounds the show while challenging social conventions. Through our favorite characters, the show presents ethical dilemmas that are relatable to us. This encourages us to continuing thinking long after an episode is over and begin conversations with others. Kudos to Seth MacFarlane for not neglecting this crucial aspect of science fiction despite his comedic writing style. He keeps us guessing as to what will come next, and we’re happy to go on that journey!
The MacFarlane brand humor is on full display, but sometimes it’s too forced
With a comedian and actor like Seth MacFarlane as the show creator, we knew that The Orville would have its fair share of laughs. He has never shied away from toilet humor, physical comedy, or topical jokes in the past, and he does not make an exception here. Almost every crew member gets a chance to make light of things, and even Bortus plays straight man sometimes. The show’s tone is evident from several comical exchanges from the pilot episode. Even with the tension between them, Ed and Kelly easily play off each other in conversation.
Unfortunately, The Orville falls into the trap of trying way to hard to be funny, and many of the jokes fall flat along the way. Some feel wedged into the storyline, while others are just in poor taste. This meant lots of awkward moments and half-laughs in the first four episodes. Don’t get us wrong – we love MacFarlane’s willingness to push boundaries. However, this is not an animated show. He wants us to take him and the show seriously. While it’s possible the show strikes a better balance later in the season, this is likely to turn off some sci-fi fans.
The anachronisms make being present in the future a challenge
One of the characteristics of a great science fiction show is its ability to transport audiences to new worlds or into the future. The creation of technology, unique perspectives, and special terminology is crucial. While words, phrases, or stories may be similar to what we come across day-to-day, they’re just different enough. In The Orville, we know that we’re dealing with the 25th century and there’s an abundance of evidence that society has advanced. Very much like its inspiration, Ed lives in a world with space travel, alien races, and advanced weaponry that make for exciting television.
Ed: Captain Vorak, I will not allow that child to be taken off the Orville without Bortus’s consent. Look, I suggest we all just take a beat here, let the admiral sort this out. In the meantime, you can hang out on our ship.
Kelly: We have board games. We have Scrabble. We have Candy Land. We have Monopoly. You can be the car.
Alara: Kaylon is comparable in that area to the Calivon themselves, which means they should be willing to talk to us as long as he’s with us.
John: White dude can go to Compton long as the black guy says it’s cool.
Alara: I have no idea what that means, but yes.
While The Orville has some great futuristic elements, the anachronisms and references snap us back into the present. It’s hard to think that 400 years into the future, they still play board games or eat cannabis edibles. It’s also tough to believe they are familiar enough with Compton or Dora the Explorer to use them during conversation. Every time one of these occurs, it distracts us from fully immersing in the world. Perhaps with a lighter touch, we would have an easier time believing in the storytelling.
Final Verdict: The Orville aims for the stars, but to us it doesn’t quite have the reach
In creating The Orville, Seth MacFarlane tried to combine comedy and his love of Star Trek. We’re just not convinced he’s found a good balance yet. In the first four episodes, two of them veered too much towards slapstick and bathroom humor, while the others held serious, contemplative tones. Ideally, every episode should have a combination of both halves while maintaining basic tenets of science fiction. Yes, this is not an easy thing to do, and yes, his effort is commendable. Still, when you decided to tackle something as iconic as Star Trek, you have to bring your A game. Unfortunately, right now we’re not completely sold on the potential of this show. There are just too many other science fiction shows that know how to do it right from minute one.
Perhaps you love and watch Family Guy, American Dad, or Ted. Then this might be the show for you. Should you love Seth MacFarlane’s brand of humor, then you’ll probably enjoy this show. If you always felt that Star Trek needed to take itself a little less seriously, The Orville is the solution. Maybe if given more time the show would shine, but many of us just didn’t see what we needed to stayed tuned. If you are someone who hoped for a little more ingenuity than what we got, it might be best to stick to Star Trek: Discovery.