Being familiar with Seth MacFarlane’s body of work, the question I was asking myself going into The Orville was not if, but how long before the show took advantage of its sci-fi trappings to make an alien dick joke. Like a phallus of Damocles hanging over the pilot, MacFarlane’s long and dedicated history of easy genital humor made me wary that he created a show in space just to broaden the cosmic scale of his boner-joke ambitions. Sure enough, the very first joke entails MacFarlane’s Ed Mercer coming home to find his wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), cheating on him. The tense silence following the discovery is broken when Grayson’s alien partner suddenly ejaculates a cloud of blue liquid from his eyebrows. Surprisingly, the gag ends up providing another kind of release. Having gotten that obligation out of its system, The Orville continues on, mostly dick-free, as the most positive and generally good-natured of MacFarlane’s shows. Unfortunately, that mild amicability doesn’t include much of an identity, or even much humor.
The story picks up again a year later. Mercer has taken his divorce badly, and it’s been adversely affecting his job in the Planetary Union. He meets with Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) who reluctantly offers him a captaincy on the USS Orville, a mid-range exploratory vessel. The only caveat is that the only available first officer for his command is Grayson, his ex-wife. The relationship between the two is meant to be the central tension of the show. Again, as indicative of the general amicable mildness of The Orville, the two aren’t cruel to each other, or outlandish. Both come across as completely reasonable people who are forced to evaluate their failed relationship due to being in unexpected proximity.
The central gag built around this is their willingness to engage everyone—crew members, Union Scientists, and enemy aliens—into passive-aggressive conversations on what constitutes a good relationship. How the two argue offers a hint of a family dynamic the show is building with the supporting cast. As the captain and first officer argue in another room like mom and dad, the kids oscillate between ignoring the turmoil and whispering theories to each other about what’s going on and whose fault it is. The crew who fulfill this role are enjoyable, if a little thinly drawn. Mostly introduced when Mercer first comes aboard the Orville, there’s Helmsman Malloy (Scott Grimes), described as a “loose cannon,” whose loose cannon-ing seems to consist of drinking a beer while piloting the shuttlecraft and sniffing his shoes before putting his clothes away. Also we meet Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald); Navigator LaMarr (J. Lee), whose thing is liking soda; Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), a young, super-strong security officer; and Bortus (Peter Macon), who we’re told is a member of an all-male alien species. (Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations, but it was a relief that Mercer opted instead for a lame gag about leaving toilet seats up, rather than the gay-panic joke mandatory to any of MacFarlane’s other shows.) And lastly, Isaac (Mark Jackson), the crew’s curious, logical Spock/Data stand-in, hailing from a species of cybernetic life-forms famous for being incredibly racist. Nothing comes of this particular tidbit. Maybe it’s simply hilarious enough to imagine a racist robot? Maybe the show is saving all its ace racism jokes for later episodes?
With the characters and setting established, The Orville doesn’t come across as sci-fi pastiche, it is straight-up Star Trek, specifically The Next Generation. Every element of The Orville is rooted firmly in the late ’80s to early ’90s incarnation of Star Trek, from the depiction of a clean, brightly lit future, to its yearning, inspiring orchestration, color-coded uniforms and the minutest details of the set design. Living spaces are full of sensual abstract sculptures and hanging moss wall art. Even within the confines of the starship, potted plants poke out of every corner of a room. While invoking nostalgia for the soft taupe curves of The Next Generation is potent enough to offer a sufficiently pleasant viewing experience, it’s a question of what The Orville hopes to do by hewing so close to one particular show.
The story is very much a standard “enemy species” plot line. The ship is sent to a research outpost known as the “Scientist’s Playground” under the false pretense of delivering supplies. The crew flies to the planet’s surface where Dr. Aranov (Brian George) reveals his research team has perfected a ray that accelerates time within a contained field. An alien species known as the Krill (established as evil by their intergalactic bad guy color scheme of choice: slate gray and acid green) found out about the device and want to use it as a weapon. They arrive and storm the science center in order to seize it. Above the planet, the Orville engages with a Krill destroyer as the crew fights their way back to the ship. Back onboard, Mercer and Grayson agree to relinquish the ray, but not before secretly hot-gluing a genetically modified redwood seed to the end of the time gun’s barrel. The ray activates on arrival and a massive tree immediately bursts into existence, severing the Krill ship in half. Later, as the Orville secures repairs, Mercer admits that while it’s personally difficult for him to be around Grayson, she’s too much of an asset to let go. Grudgingly, he asks her to stay aboard.
Ultimately, the most damning thing you can say about The Orville is that there isn’t that much to say about The Orville. While first episodes are burdened with the ungrateful work of exposition and world-building often at the expense of hilarity, it all still feels very slight. It’s not bad, but people in space speaking in a slightly more casual demeanor is not a sufficiently robust conceit to sustain a show. The final reveal shows that it was Grayson who worked behind the scenes to convince Admiral Halsey to give Mercer command of a starship. This reveal isn’t presented as nefarious; it reads like she’s truly trying to help. But is it atonement or an elaborate scheme to try and get the two back together? There’s enough goodwill built up with the general likeability of the characters that turning Grayson into a crazy manipulator isn’t an appealing angle to pursue. Because right now, The Orville’s greatest strength is its general positivity. The chance to see relationships deepen between the characters so far stands as the show’s most engaging aspect. Continuing to borrow from Star Trek—not just the pleasant, semi-futuristic wall hangings and uplifting score, but the show’s intrinsic faith in humanity—offers The Orville its best chance of developing into something worth sticking around for.
- Hi there! I’m Nick and I’ll be your captain here on the USS Orville Reviews. What do all of you want from a science fiction comedy? We’re fortunate to have ambitious shows like Futurama and Rick And Morty that take advantage of being animated to explore the most surreal, high-concept corners of sci-fi story devices. The Orville isn’t going to be that. Is it enough to be a slightly goofier Star Trek? A Parks And Rec in space? There are worse things.
- I can’t ever see Victor Garber in a role without hearing his voice seductively purring “whoool” in my ear.
- The scene in the holodeck where we first meet Malloy is the perfect example of the show’s incredibly tame ambitions. Malloy programmed a feudal Japanese fantasy ogre battle—but get this—the ogre is just a laid-back dude like you or me! It’s a modest delivery on a pretty big setup.
- “Doc, stay behind Alara!” “Which one is Alara? I’m sorry, I’m still learning names.” As someone who suffers a pathological inability to remember names, this gag resonated with me.
- I’m 90 percent certain those genetically modified redwood seeds are Cocoa Krispies.
- The most endearing element of this entire show was the tiny Kermit the Frog figurine Captain Mercer keeps on his desk.