Prepare yourself for the mildest take of the week.
With Star Trek: Discovery debuting on CBS’ online platform in a few weeks, it’s hard to imagine why we need another Trek-like show. It’s even harder to see how Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville (which debuted this past weekend on Fox) will be anything more than the Deep Impact to Discovery showrunner Bryan Fuller’s Armageddon (or vice-versa, depending on your preference of killer asteroid movies from the 90s).
As with any of his creative ventures, the success of The Orville will likely start and stop with MacFarlane, whose brand of comedy can be summed up in a scene from the new show’s opening episode. After making a somewhat clever joke as a punchline for defeating this week’s bad guy (sorry, spoilers), MacFarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer goes on to explain the joke, flabbergasted that no one on his crew was familiar with Arbor Day, thus sucking away any punch from the joke like the vacuum of space. That’s the long-running problem with MacFarlane’s work. Family Guy has moments where it might be as clever as The Simpsons or South Park, but it usually proceeds to carry the joke on far too long. One could say that MacFarlane’s comedic style is the physical manifestation of “beating a dead horse.”
The Orville suffers a bit from MacFarlane’s need to either explain or beat into dust every single laugh line, but it’s surprising how little “a bit” is in this case. The rest is a straightforward send-up of Star Trek. In “Old Wounds,” the series kicks off an alien-filled adventure with some basic human drama. A divorced couple is forced to work together after their marriage went south due to interplanetary infidelity. And not only do they figure out a way to work together (not for lack of bickering), we suspect there may be room for these two to fall back in love before the season is over. Together, MacFarlane and co-star Adrianne Palicki have some work to do in the chemistry department, but individually they deliver performances that work within the construct of the show.
And that’s really it so far. There’s plenty of slickly produced Trek tech stuff and a cute space battle with colorful banter, but beyond that, it’s far more straightforward than expected. No Family Guy-esque detours, a MacFarlane performance that’s operating in low power, and a few Victor Garber scenes for good measure. It’s the kind of opening salvo that could go any number of ways. Will this be just an occasionally funny Star Trek spoof or does MacFarlane have something really interesting planned for the next 12 episodes?
My gut instinct is that The Orville is aiming for the middle — that “charming enough, but completely non-controversial” space in which a lot of today’s prime time television operates. MacFarlane clearly has a soft spot for Star Trek and other things sci-fi (see also his championship and production of Cosmos) — there’s a lot of love put into the way The Orville looks and feels just left of center when compared to the various Gene Roddenberry-created properties. Some of this credit should go to co-producer and episode one director Jon Favreau, who perhaps helped MacFarlane and team take the show’s visual style up a notch. It does look great with its clean lines and flourish of meticulously designed aliens. To the show’s further credit, there are a number of top notch directors coming in for episodes during the first season, including Jamie Babbit, Brannon Braga, and Mr. The Next Generation himself, Jonathan “Two Takes” Frakes. Behind the scenes of The Orville, it’s a “Star Trek creatives of your youth” party.
And some of the jokes land (including one hallway altercation between the captain and one of his odder, blobbier crew members). And with forthcoming guest appearances from the likes of Charlize Theron and others, there’s a chance that this show could find that Trek knock-off sweet spot that Galaxy Quest found in the late 90s. The big difference being that Galaxy Quest looked at the world of actors who may have been on a show like Star Trek, not necessarily trying to live in a Star Trek-like universe of its own. For MacFarlane, the challenge will be delivering something over 13-episodes that doesn’t feel like “Star Trek with more jokes.”
At the very least, The Orville is worth a little more time and inspection to see if MacFarlane has anything interesting to say. And if his many interesting collaborators will help him take some risks. For this fan of all things space and fiction, it’s worth a few more episodes. At least until Discovery is ready for launch.