The Orville. Seth MacFarlane’s final frontier. MacFarlane is a power producer who has changed the landscape of FOX so profoundly that he gets to write his own ticket, and that’s exactly what he’s done here with this science fiction adventure show. At least that’s the only way I think this show got picked up.
Love him or hate him, Seth MacFarlane makes a lot of people laugh. Maybe he doesn’t make as many laugh as he used to, but he brings in the advertisers for a major broadcast network. Family Guy is starting its 16th season this fall. That’s a feat achieved by very few.
While he’s had cancellations before (Family Guy before it found its audience on Cartoon Network, The Cleveland Show, Bordertown), FOX’s faith in him has never wavered. In 2008, FOX and MacFarlane signed a landmark 100-million-dollar deal to keep him at the studio for 5 years. At the time, Family Guy had an estimated worth of over 1 billion dollars. That was just one of his properties and he’s still producing.
Some don’t like his style and others, whether they admit it or not, are resentful of his success. A geeky animator turned a foul-mouthed cartoon dad into an empire that has a higher value than Indonesia’s GDP. Now he’s a writer, producer, film director, Emmy host, and even a crooner with a few albums under his belt. You have to respect his tenacity and what he’s achieved … even if it’s so far removed from your cup of tea that it more closely resembles laundry detergent.
I’ve always respected MacFarlane for trying new things and stretching outside of the realm of animation (Cosmos, Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West) but it can be argued that The Orville is not exactly “new”. It harkens back to an era that MacFarlane and other Star Trek fans his age love to revisit: the early-to-mid 1990s. Many fans regard it as the “golden era of Trek”; Kirk and Spock just finished the last original series movie, The Next Generation dominated syndication, Deep Space Nine was expanding the boundaries, and Voyager offered more on the horizon. This nostalgic decade defined Star Trek for many and it sticks in our minds as we imagine our cubicles as engineering stations on a 24th century starship bridge: Brightly-lit optimism tinted with beige colors and carpet.
When I first saw the trailer for The Orville, that is exactly what I saw: bright lights, optimism, beige interior and, of course, carpet. In the same way that the lightsaber sound evokes warm nostalgia, seeing primary colors designate division of duties on a starship brightens your day.
Do you know what didn’t have bright lights, optimism, beige interior, and obvious primary colors of division? Star Trek: Discovery’s trailer (I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of carpet). Discovery didn’t evoke the days of 1960s cardboard sets or the luxury liners of the mid-1990s. To many, it was a dim shade of a franchise they dearly love with the mask of JJ Abrams and Game of Thrones. It was your grandfather trying so hard to be hip that you didn’t recognize him with an Ed Hardy cap on his balding head.
This isn’t a dissection of the differences between The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery; But it is important to understand that many saw The Orville as an escape to what they believe Star Trek to be. The Star Trek they grew up with was what they didn’t recognize in Discovery. For many, it was an either-or type situation.
Occasionally, MacFarlane and company billed it as such. The Orville’s Mark Jackson said in an interview “I think there’s going to be a few disgruntled Star Trek fans who will love this show, as well as Seth MacFarlane fans, so we’ll have quite the mix.” This appeared in the headlines on many entertainment blogs as “The Orville is for Disgruntled Star Trek Fans”. Per usual, this was a gross exaggeration and misquote.
Jackson was speaking mainly about the paywall CBS All Access built in front of Star Trek: Discovery, and not the overall feeling of the show or quality. Regardless, it fanned the flames for people excited about Discovery and created a kinship with those who were lamenting its premiere date. Honestly, I was more excited for Discovery than The Orville but I was very much looking forward to both. I’m a firm believer in loving more than one science fiction property at once, contrary to the tired Star Trek vs Star Wars debate.
That said, after seeing the first two episodes of The Orville, I can say with complete confidence that the show is not good. Now, in a social media age where everything you like is perfect and everything you dislike is hot garbage, what does “not good” mean? In the valley between perfect and garbage is a beautiful landscape with nuance and subtlety instead of absolute peaks and valleys. (One day, I’ll tell my grandchildren of this mythical place that some say does not exist, just like Dry Land.)
Right off the bat, The Orville confuses its audience. It’s not dramatic enough to be a drama and it’s not funny enough to be a comedy. At times, it feels like a substandard sitcom; but one that had the laugh track muted.
The early seasons of The Big Bang Theory relied on character-driven humor and awkward situations to garner chuckles. The later seasons has the actors say what the writers think is funny and then have a long dead audience from the days of I Love Lucy tell you that it was supposed to be hilarious. This is what The Orville makes you think of when they are trying to be funny. I can’t even say that it’s “trying too hard” because it isn’t. The entire show (besides the on-point special effects and makeup design) plays like a half-hearted effort to gain your attention with a poorly lit neon sign saying “Nostalgia! Nostalgia!”
Seth MacFarlane himself had a few guest spots on Star Trek: Enterprise and has been pitching his own Star Trek show for years to CBS. They never went for it, and so he went to his old friend and home: FOX. MacFarlane knows Trek and has proven as such with constant Star Trek references on his animated shows and public appearances where he’ll try to work in his knowledge of the the Final Frontier into every speech or interview. But he was never given the keys. CBS said “No, you can’t take the family car out for a drive up the coast this weekend.”
That doesn’t stop someone like MacFarlane; he stole CBS’ keys while they were sleeping and made a copy at the local hardware store. Except the guy wasn’t there, customer service was no help, so he just fashioned his own approximation and figured they were close enough. The Orville is what we got if you follow that metaphor.
When you watch The Orville, everything looks like The Next Generation but does not feel like The Next Generation. The costumes, the titles after the teaser, the fade to black with the swell of music, the bridge layout, it’s all there…but not quite.
In Mad Men 3x02, Sterling Cooper was tasked to create an ad promoting Patio Cola (we know it today as Diet Pepsi). The clients wanted an exact replica of the opening of the film “Bye Bye Birdie” with an Ann-Margaret type singing the title song adjusted to have her talk about diet cola. Sterling Cooper got to work and hired a look-alike to create the approximation. The fictional advertising agency pulled it off perfectly but the clients weren’t happy. They couldn’t put their finger on as to why it made them seem uneasy. It’s what they asked for but something just felt off. Roger Sterling responded to the question “It’s exactly what they asked for, why didn’t they like it?” with simply stating “It’s not Ann-Margaret.”
In episode 2 of The Orville, the captain (played by MacFarlane) and his XO/Ex-wife are trapped in an approximation of what used to be their apartment in New York City. The XO tries to open the door but can’t so MacFarlane says he can handle it. He does exactly what we expect him to do: instead of trying to kick it open, he uses his shoulder and it of course does not work. He moans in pain and rubs his shoulder and his XO asks him if he’s alright. Fade to commercial. That was it, that was the end of the scene. Were we supposed to feel drama or comedy? This writer can’t tell.
Often with Star Trek, you heard a dramatic swell of music to indicate danger or intrigue. The Orville approximated that but achieved nothing. Two weed references and a shot of tequila later, the show has slapped you in the face with trying to separate itself from Star Trek while still desperately riding its coattails. They used the “We, humans, are in an alien zoo?!” story line to ground them in familiar fiction, but this area is so familiar that nearly every IP has used it since the 50s.
Separate from confusing its audience on genre and trying to be Star Trek while not being Star Trek, the writing, story, acting, and direction, are all lackluster. The beats do not contain urgency nor do we feel any real danger. Every moment that has been billed so far as surprise or growth is incredibly predictable because we’ve all seen it done 726 times before. Every section of the show feels like people are pretending to be imposters, not even legitimate imposters. Actors are acting like they're acting, writers are pretending to write science fiction, the network is imagining once again that they can carry a science fiction show and succeed (see Almost Human, Firefly, etc). I will be very surprised if this gets a second season, but I will give the show one more chance before I turn it off for good.
You might be saying, “look how long TNG took to get going, you should give it more of a chance!” You’re right, it wasn’t until season 3 when TNG really started telling good stories.
But back then we only had a few things to watch. Today the options are almost limitless and every single one of those properties are competing for my viewing time.
It’s not 1990 anymore.
Written by Tristan Riddell