At this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Seth MacFarlane described the void he wants to fill with the new science-fiction series, The Orville:
“I kind of miss the forward thinking, aspirational, optimistic place in science fiction that Star Trek used to occupy […] [I]t can’t all be The Hunger Games. It can’t all be the nightmare scenario. I think there’s some space for the aspirational blueprint of what [humanity] could do if we get our shit together, and that’s something that’s been missing for me for a while.”
The Family Guy creator wasn’t the first person in the room to invoke Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering franchise, but it’d be hard to look at any aspect of The Orville and not think about the Enterprise, the United Federation Of Planets, or even something as granular as Captain Jean-Luc Picard adjourning to his quarters for a cup of Earl Grey. Erstwhile Picard Patrick Stewart has yet to extend his collaborations with MacFarlane to The Orville, but some of his Trek colleagues are onboard: The Enterprise-D’s number two, Jonathan Frakes, directs an episode, while long-time Trek writer and producer (and MacFarlane’s partner on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey) Brannon Braga is among the EPs. Echoes of Starfleet reverberate throughout the series, from the look of its wardrobe to the designs of the interiors to the interstellar republic that employs the main characters. The show’s eponymous spacecraft, a “mid-level exploratory vessel” within the Planetary Union’s 3,000-ship fleet, was built and photographed as a 3-D miniature, like Starfleet craft of old. Squint hard enough during an episode of The Orville, and you could swear that Fox gave its favored son all the money he needed to make a Next Generation fan film in which the characters casually insult one another and reference The Muppets.
The Orville is not the picture that’s conjured by the phrase “Seth MacFarlane sci-fi comedy.” It’s not even a sci-fi comedy, at least not strictly: Like its old-school inspirations, it seeks to hone a strong- and distinct-enough voice to carry a variety of styles and tones, depending on the week. The Orville crew—led by MacFarlane in the role of novice captain Ed Mercer—maneuvers through garden-variety exploration and space-military plots, mid-episode twists worthy of a pulp periodical, and morality plays among the stars. It’s an ambitious slate with admirable aims, and an indication that the production is building a large and multifaceted sandbox for The Orville, just like the one that gave The Next Generation the latitude to do both game-changing two-parters with the Borg and time-hopping romps through the holdodeck.
But they’re skipping to recess before they’ve finished their classwork: The Orville can’t be all kinds of shows yet, because it’s uncertain what type of show The Orville is at its core. It’s as amorphous as the sentient green glob who’s slithering through the ship’s corridors and speaking in the voice of Norm Macdonald. The characters and the relationships that could form the show’s foundation aren’t in place yet, and those that are there are the thinnest of sketches, the sort summarized in a logline—Mercer and his second-in-command, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), used to be married (talk about putting the “ex” in “executive officer”!)—or in the expository dialogue of an officers’ roll call. Security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) is green behind her fan-like ears and super strong, hulking Bortus (Peter Macon) comes from an all-male planet, and Dr. Claire Finn tasks Penny Johnson Jerald with more or less reprising her peace-keeping, sounding-board character from The Larry Sanders Show—but in space this time!
What results is a show that isn’t so much daring in its flexibility as it is exhausting in its lack of cohesion. The pilot trudges through scene after scene of setup, and subsequent episodes don’t get much peppier. Its sci-fi concepts raise big questions about the contemporary condition: technology that, in the right hands, could improve life (and, in the wrong hands. destroy it); parents clashing over their offspring’s gender identity, before the kid has anything to say about it themselves. But The Orville lacks the insight or perspective to actually say anything new in its answers. At least the big ideas nudge the characters toward some rounding out. The A-story of episode two, “Command Performance,” performs a classic from the book of stoned dorm room “What If?”s, but it also fills in some of the gaps in the relationship between Ed and Kelly, and puts Alara’s gumption and leadership abilities to the test.
The Orville goes where other programs have gone before, but those other programs didn’t have the imprimatur and sensibility of MacFarlane, prospects that could repel as many viewers as they attract. When The Orville cracks a joke, it doesn’t do so in the glib, button-pushing manner of its creator’s animation and film work. It treats humor more like a release valve, and that’s where the series manages to stake its own place among the stars: It’s the optimistic, episodic, futuristic sci-fi series in which the characters shoot the shit like everyday coworkers. Ed and Kelly’s veiled digs at one another or a digression about bringing soda onto the bridge add another layer to The Orville’s weird mishmash, giving it a postmodern informality that’s very, very much in keeping with the tradition of Family Guy and Ted. MacFarlane follows that thread in his performance: As Ed, he’s the starship commander you could have a beer with. (He even has a doofus best buddy in helmsman Gordon Malloy, played by Scott Grimes.) He never fully slips the surly bonds of his essential MacFarlane-ness: The waggish glint in his eyes, the shit-eating-grin—he always seems like he’s a few seconds away from launching into a cheeky production number. (Surely the words “Musical episode?” are written somewhere on a whiteboard in the Orville writers’ room.)
Which is the vexing thing about MacFarlane’s remarks from the TCAs. Yes, big-tent sci-fi has been raining on its own parade for a long time, and yes, it’s refreshing that someone wants to poke some holes in those clouds. But does that person have to be Seth MacFarlane? Someone whose work ethic has always outmatched his imagination? The Orville is to Star Trek: The Next Generation what Family Guy is to The Simpsons and A Million Ways To Die In The West was to Blazing Saddles: Not the genuine article, and not even an incredible simulation, but something with the same look and some of the same feel but with a distinctly different soul. For all its bracing earnestness, the humorous side of The Orville, the side that halts conversations to comment on the action, comes across like taking the piss. Solemnity and humor aren’t mutually exclusive properties on a show like this, but it’s a delicate balance. The Orville is neither delicate, nor balanced, and it’s creator’s track record suggests it probably won’t ever be.
They don’t make sci-fi TV shows like they used to because the genre evolved; it was already evolving when Star Trek: The Next Generation was still on the air. (See: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5.) Shows like Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Black Mirror, Orphan Black, and Rick And Morty might not project much hope for the future, but they reflect the eras of their production a lot better than The Orville reflects 2017. Escapist fiction about a technological utopia spanning multiple worlds sounds pretty damn appealing right about now, but The Orville is doing a shallow job of it. It’s the world’s most expensive cosplay, a slavish re-creation whose minor tweaks don’t bring much in the way of freshness to the table. The Orville embraces the old in its quest to do something new, a retreat to move forward that would throw a Vulcan for a logical loop. The fact that it’s premiering at the same time as an actual Star Trek series is the least of its worries.
Reviews by Nick Wanserski will run weekly.