An early episode of Fox’s The Orville plays out largely as a multicharacter referendum on the moral and ethical complications of performing gender reassignment surgery on a newborn alien baby. It’s presented as an allegory for any circumstance in which we attempt to read the values of a different culture through our own cultural prism. The episode has almost no action and very few jokes.
It is not, it should be noted, good or smartly articulated allegory, going so far as to have characters directly reference the contemporary issues being echoed by this futuristic procedure, but it’s the kind of social issue–oriented storytelling that Star Trek shows have always attempted to do.
More a so-so experiment in homage than a distinctive sci-fi comedy.
I mention this plotline not to spoil a big twist in The Orville or to warn away those peculiar and oblivious trolls who complain that CBS All-Access’ upcoming Star Trek show looks like it’s trying too hard to be political (as if Gene Roddenberry hadn’t baked that into the franchise’s DNA). I mention it because it’s a much clearer perspective on what The Orville wants, but only sometimes manages, to be than any of the advertising for the show or any of the usual expectations for a series with Seth MacFarlane attached as creator and star.
MacFarlane plays Ed Mercer, given the command of the eponymous midlevel exploratory space vessel as his last chance to pull himself out of a yearlong depression after catching his wife (Adrianne Palicki) in bed with a blue alien. Ed’s crew includes gifted-but-erratic helmsman Gordon (Scott Grimes), navigator John LaMarr (J. Lee), understanding physician Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and nonhumans Bortus (Peter Macon), Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) and Isaac (Mark Jackson). When the Orville requires a first officer, the only person available shortly before launch is Kelly Grayson, Ed’s ex. Oh the space farce that shall ensue as the Orville heads out across the galaxy making deliveries, performing basic rescue missions, dealing with interstellar prejudice and more.
Fox is building its promotion for The Orville around the familiar MacFarlane humor that has funneled countless doubloons into the network and studio coffers over the years, wooing Family Guy and American Dad fans with snarky MacFarlane quips and a gelatinous blob voiced by Norm Macdonald. In the actual series, the quips are there, but they have the impact, intentional or unintentional, of making MacFarlane’s character seem really, really passive aggressive and initially misogynistic, harping repeatedly on Kelly’s infidelity in a way that almost never rises to the level of banter. I don’t think the show comes across as misogynistic (something MacFarlane shows have sometimes been accused of), but its main character is certainly a dick. Bortus and Isaac are humor-driven characters, but they rely on an initially similar emotionless sarcasm before Bortus becomes more fleshed out (and less amusing). Macdonald’s Yaphit is in only two scenes in the three episodes sent to critics, specifically the scene featured in many trailers and a later appearance that I can only describe as creepy. There are no Family Guy-style cutaways. With limited exceptions, the action scenes aren’t presented with humorous intent (nor, unfortunately, are they ever all that exciting).
If MacFarlane had gone to Fox and asked to do a sci-fi half-hour sitcom in a Star Trek-esque universe, they surely would have let him. [The team behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had Boldly Going Nowhere in development at the network nearly a decade ago.] He did not. The Orville is an hourlong series, which is sure to surprise some viewers. It also isn’t Galaxy Quest, which perfectly straddled genre parody and earnest genre emulation, with its mixture of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and high-budget spectacle.
The Orville is a reminder that Seth MacFarlane is also the devoted geek — said only with respect — who earned a Grammy nomination for an album of standards and last used his Fox leverage to remake Cosmos. There are no tongues in the cheeks of The Orville. It’s the work of a fan of Star Trek trying to make a Star Trek show, without any of that pesky darkness or edginess modern audiences might expect. And also without paying anything, other than clear respect, to the Roddenberry estate. From Joseph A. Porro’s crew costumes to John Debney’s score to the tremendous makeup team to the mission/alien-of-the-week episodic structure, the primary note on every creative decision was presumably either “Make it more Star Trek” or, after a while, just a wink and, “You know what to do.”
If you just take it on faith that he’s following in the footsteps of William Shatner rather than American Dad guest star Patrick Stewart (or even Scott Bakula), the woodenness of MacFarlane’s lead performance isn’t unacceptable. Even if Steven Soderbergh confusingly saw fit to cast him as a British fop in Logan Lucky, MacFarlane isn’t a rangy actor, and the closest he comes to rapport with his scene partners is longtime American Dad collaborator Grimes, who gives the show a welcome looseness. Palicki’s mostly a good sport. Macon gets impressive mileage out of a monotone character under inches of latex. And I can’t tell if there’s a performance there, but there’s something charmingly self-effacing about red carpet–friendly ingenue Sage rendering herself only partially recognizable beneath an alien forehead and standard-issue space uniform.
The highest compliment I can pay to The Orville is that while the three episodes I’ve seen only fleetingly work, I don’t question MacFarlane’s sincerity, nor the sincerity of episodic directors Jon Favreau and Star Trek franchise veterans Robert Duncan McNeil and Brannon Braga. The retro-futuristic effects in The Orville work well, and the show looks like it cost Fox a fair amount of money. Whether viewers will respond to sincerity and professionalism, but limited mirth and very few thrills, when they’ve been promised Seth MacFarlane hilarity remains to be seen.
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J Lee, Mark Jackson, Chad L. Coleman
Creator: Seth MacFarlane
Premieres: Sunday, Sept. 10, and Sunday, Sept. 17, after NFL; then airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, beginning Sept. 21 (Fox)