The name Seth MacFarlane likely conjures up thoughts of Family Guy's Conway Twitty cutaway gags, talking teddy bears and the sexually lucid charm of American Dad's Roger. (Oh, so that last one just me, then?) He'll soon use other aliens to try winning over entirely new swaths of fans thanks to his new Fox series The Orville, an earnestly crafted sci-fi adventure that gives audiences a blend of spacefaring action, laugh-out-loud comedy and all of humanity's complications. It's popcorn TV for the 25th century.
To immediately shine a spotlight on the elephant-shaped alien in the room, it's impossible to look at The Orville and not feel forced to make every kind of Star Trek comparison imaginable. A rose is a rose is a sci-fi fan, after all, and it admittedly doesn't seem like The Orville's creative team put quite enough consideration into distancing itself from that most lauded of all live-action sci-fi franchises. From the color-coded uniforms to the stereotypical female issues to an entire storyline, Fox's new show undoubtedly owes a planet-sized genre debt to Star Trek: The Original Series and others. But very few space-based shows ever hit the small screen completely independent from Gene Roddenberry's basic vision, and I'm the kind of TV viewer that wishes sci-fi series were as network-abundant as police procedurals and hospital dramas. So as blasphemous as it may be, I've little issue with the Trek-iness of it all.
Which takes us to The Orville's brass tacks, where brass is being used in an authoritative sense. Seth MacFarlane stars as Ed Mercer, who lands a dream gig as captain of an exploratory vessel dubbed the Orville. (The all-encompassing government-esque program employing Ed is called the Planetary Union, which also features guest stars like Legends of Tomorrow's Victor Garber and more.) Unfortunately for both the character and viewers, Ed went through a major life change when he caught his wife Kelly -- played by the great, though underused, Adrienne Palicki -- having sex with another man...alien thing.
This overused trope of course leads to Kelly getting named as First Officer on the Orville, offering up whatever the future's version of a "conveyor belt of infidelity jokes" is. Half of these moments could have been cut out of the episodes screened for critics, and then replaced by moments where Kelly is given some further character development. But strife always leads to drama, so Ed and Kelly's situation is at least understandable, if not at all refreshing, and things will hopefully get more rounded out as the season goes on.
The rest of the ensemble is an odd assortment of characters that range from slightly stoic to downright silly. To start there, we have American Dad's Scott Grimes as Ed's maturity-lite best friend and wicked-smooth ship pilot Gordon Malloy, who joins in on much of The Orville's bro-ish humor. He's teamed with navigator John LeMarr, played with jubilant gusto by J. Lee. (Probably my favorite character all around.) The booming-voiced Peter Macon and Walking Dead vet Chad L. Coleman play a pair of prosthetics-heavy aliens -- Lt. Commander Bortus and Klyden, respectively -- whose species is single-gendered and doesn't pee much. Isaac (Mark Jackson) is the requisite robot whose talents often supersede anything that humans are capable of, which perfectly justifies his dismissal of biological beings. The alien Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) is a young security officer who is amazingly strong on Earth due to differences in gravity. And last, but certainly not least, Star Trek: DS9 vet Penny Johnson Jerald plays the masterful physician Dr. Claire Finn.
Several of the aforementioned issues The Orville suffers from will no doubt be recognized by many, but once viewers get past those, then the show can be approached purely from a personal taste standpoint. And a lot of it matched up with what I was hoping for, in spite of Fox's promotional campaign trying to sell the show as a laugh riot. For what it's worth, I laughed quite a bit, largely at the quieter lines that get snuck in behind bigger moments. The jokes aren't exactly aiming for brows higher than the marker that Seth MacFarlane has set in the past, and the sporadic humor adds to the wildly varied tone, but like the Trek homages, it's not something that ever bothered me, as the whole of prestige sci-fi often takes itself too seriously without much-needed levity.
The humor doesn't cut away from the high stakes that are introduced whenever The Orville crew gets into trouble, and characters react to intense situations the way that normal people would; i.e. not calmly. The pilot feels most like a straightforward genre piece, while the second taps more into a Twilight Zone vibe (a little too literally, probably) and the third literally takes on the subject of "gender reconstruction surgery." Through the latter story, The Orville plays its most overtly topical card (down to a centuries-old pop culture reference), but it worked in more ways than it didn't, even if it probably came far too early in the season for the show to establish itself first.
Seth MacFarlane is hardly the only big name involved with The Orville, which has a pair of Star Trek franchise vets as executive producers: David A. Goodman, of Star Trek: Enterprise and Futurama fame, and Brannon Braga, writer and producer on The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise, as well as the screenwriter for First Contact. So there are definitely some talented people involved, and perhaps that's why things skewed as close to Star Trek as they did. But it was hardly a bad thing to me, especially since Trek purists are already getting a brand new franchise entry in CBS' Star Trek: Discovery.
While the reins could and should be tightened a bit on The Orville in the future, there's more than enough for genre fans to enjoy in each episode, providing no Star Trek grudges are held. The show looks great, as well, with a heavy amount of CGI wizardry and costume-laden practical effects that work seamlessly with whatever action is going down. And there are surprisingly few jokes aimed specifically at how things aliens look, especially from the man that voices Peter Griffin.
Viewers should definitely take a chance on exploring The Orville and its quirky universe at least once. It's the kind of show that will either piss off a core fanbase by getting cancelled too soon, or it'll piss off naysayers by getting renewed for ten more years. Such is the life of a Seth MacFarlane project. I'll definitely be watching the rest of Season 1 to see what other hilarious guest stars, danger-filled missions and unexpected slices of the human condition show up next. Do strap in and join me.