Science fiction and comedy. On their own, they can both be effective story-telling platforms. Together, they can create fantastic works, the 1987 Mel Brooks classic Spaceballs and Dean Parisot’s 1999 film Galaxy Quest are perfect examples of how the union can co-exist in harmony.
Two of the most most famous TV shows of the past 30 years have been sci-fi institution Star Trek: The Next Generation and Seth MacFarlane’s irreverent animated sitcom Family Guy. Both shows have droves of fans the world over, myself included. It’s conceivable that a combination of the two shows could create something at least interesting. So far, however, The Orville fails to live up to these expectations and comes off as nothing more than another MacFarlane vanity project.
The Orville, a comedic homage to Star Trek: TNG taking place 400 years in Earth’s future, fails to capture to spirit of wonder and exploratory nature of Gene Roddenberry’s series, nor does it have the comedic charm that MacFarlane has displayed in the past with Family Guy and the Ted movies. It tries to be too many things at the same time, and as a result, the whole is NOT greater than the sum of the parts. There is a noticeable lack of synergy between Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and his crew’s adventures, the interpersonal drama between Mercer and his first officer/ex-wife Kelly Grayson, played by Adrianne Palicki, and the off-beat 20th and 21st century pop culture references MacFarlane has become infamous for.
Before this gets too negative, let it be known that there is some due credit to be given. In terms of a modern take on classic science fiction with a modern network television budget, it does a passable job. The action is gripping enough, there is enough plot tension to keep an invested audience member interested throughout the running time of an episode, and the characters are all well-established and relatable enough to where the audience has a clear understanding of who everyone is, what their role in the show is, and how they interact with the world around them. When it tries to be Star Trek, the show works.
However, when the show tries to be everything else, the flaws are obvious. While there is good chemistry between MacFarlane and Palicki, the drama between their characters does not fit in well to a sci-fi show like this. A year before the main events of the show, Mercer divorced Grayson after she was found in bed with another man. Fast forward to Mercer getting command of the titular Orville, and Grayson insists on having herself be named first officer as an attempt to ensure nothing happens to Mercer, knowing that he is mistake prone and may not be the most reliable captain in the Union fleet. Predictably, the two become friends again by the end of the first episode, though not without Mercer getting a few verbal barbs in on Grayson. While this might be the set up to a romantic comedy set in the backdrop of future space, as a subplot to the whole show, it interferes with the other elements and hampers many scenes as Mercer cannot stop dropping insults on his first officer, making the captain of an advanced starship seem, at best, petty and incompetent.
Speaking of Mercer’s verbal jabs, that brings us to the part of the show that is most damning: the comedy. Many of the insults from Mercer are supposed to be taken as comedic to the audience, implying we should be laughing at Grayson for her infidelity instead of accepting her as a character, sabotaging the plotline of Mercer and Grayson understanding each other’s point of views and becoming civil with each other once again. Alongside these petty jabs are what can be best described as out of place one-liners referencing pop culture from the past 30 years. While it has become commonplace on Family Guy for the Griffin family to make references to 1980’s films like Star Wars and Back to the Future, when these same lines are used in The Orville, they come off as awkward at the best of times.
A perfect example of how these jokes don’t work comes around the halfway point of the second episode. Due to several circumstances beyond her control, the relatively young chief security officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) is thrust into command of the Orivlle. Despite her immense physical strength compared to the rest of the crew, Kitan still feels she is too young and not ready to be in command. After an incident that resulted in numerous injured crew members, Kitan goes to the chief medical officer, Dr. Claire Flinn (Penny Johnson Herald) for advice. After a touching scene where Flinn discusses how being in the captain’s chair means having to balance being in command and trusting your crew member’s suggestions, Flinn ends by saying “I’m not going to whisper the right answers in your ear, but I’ll try to be your Obi-Wan however I can,” referencing Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars franchise and how he was a mentor to Luke Skywalker throughout the series. As Kitan is an alien, she has no clue what Flinn is talking about and the scene stops dead in its tracks while Kitan asks what Flinn is referring to. Instead of coming off as a well-written reference to during the show’s timeline would be considered ancient Earth myth and lore, instead it comes off as a cringe-worthy attempt at shoehorning a Star Wars joke into the show at a time that did not call for it. Jokes like these are prevalent throughout the show and ruin the pace of many scenes, like the one above. Instead of the viewer feeling encouraged that Dr. Flinn can be the emotional backbone of the show, providing sage advice when needed, instead the line comes off like it was written by a Star Wars fan desperate to let people know that he’s “one of us.” The flaw in this type of writing is clear; pop culture references are not jokes, they are simply references. Just because the writing of the scene dictates the audience should laugh does not automatically imply that the audience will laugh. You understood Star Wars well enough to name drop a character. Great, that does not make you a comedic genius, it just means you watched a movie.
There is still potential for The Orville to regain its footing and survive past the first season. However with the show already being moved from Sunday night to Thursday night, the future does not look as bright as the show wants us to think it will be.