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‘The Orville’ Wouldn’t Be Such a Critical Failure If It Were a Half-Hour Comedy

Seth MacFarlane's "Star Trek"-esque space adventure isn't good, but there's one way it could be better.

THE ORVILLE: L-R: Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in the "If the Stars Should Appear" episode of THE ORVILLE airing Thursday, Sept. 28 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Becker/FOX

Michael Becker/FOX

The fact that the new Fox series “The Orville” is an hour-long “space adventure,” not a half-hour sitcom, has proven to be a major surprise for fans of creator Seth MacFarlane.

It makes sense, given that he’s best known for the hundreds of episodes of animated comedy he’s produced since the launch of “Family Guy” in 1999. In addition, there’s much of the show’s marketing: Looking back at the original trailer presented during the Fox upfronts, from the music choices and the punchline-heavy editing to the tagline “the universe has a crew loose,” it’s easy to see why people still seem to think the series is a half-hour comedy.

Of course, as viewers now know, “The Orville” is twice the length and nowhere near as funny as expected. Instead, the freshman drama aims to create a new spin on classic science fiction series like “Star Trek” — and not that successfully.

While “The Orville’s” choice to explore hour-long territory proves flawed, it is important to remember that the sort of show viewers initially thought they were getting — a “Galaxy Quest”-esque riff on space travel — isn’t the easiest to pull off. In fact, it’s hard to find an actual example of a successful half-hour space comedy. Would “The Orville” have worked better had it fully embraced that format? Here are a few reasons why that answer might be “yes.”

1. A Tighter Structure Would Prevent Dead Weight

The first episode of “The Orville” is devoted to a fair amount of set-up (such as an entire scene in the ship’s hanger that is entirely spent explaining basic details about the supporting characters) but doesn’t feature much in the way of an extended plot. Future episodes only dance somewhat with the notion of subplots — the second episode, “Command Performance,” is mostly a two-hander between Ed (MacFarlane) and Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), but does feature Alara (Halston Sage) also dealing with the pressures of command; meanwhile, the third episode is also singularly focused on one story, but does its best to involve the entire cast.

When you compare the amount of plot that an episode of “The Orville” churns through in comparison to a plot-heavy comedy like, say, “The Good Place” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” it’s pretty comparable. But “Orville” scenes feel heavy and bloated due to being twice the length.

A different show might be able to use the lack of time constraints to really let character moments pop, but that’s not the case. It’s also another argument for it being a half-hour comedy…

2. The Actors Would Actually Be Allowed to Be Funny

Adrianne Palicki always stood out on “Friday Night Lights” for her quick wit, and within the “Orville” ensemble there could be some breakout talents. Halston Sage might have delivered the show’s funniest moment in Episode 2, and J Lee’s low-key tone has the potential to offer a nice balance to the more epic sequences.

THE ORVILLE: L-R: Peter Macon and Halston Sage in the "If the Stars Should Appear" episode of THE ORVILLE airing Thursday, Sept. 28 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Becker/FOX

In short, it’s an interesting ensemble of actors, but because the “Orville” is aiming for such a specific tone, one that avoids presenting itself as a straight comedy, the performances feel strangled to a degree. Given the chance to go goofier, performers including Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, and Peter Macon could have some real fun.

3. No Pressure to Take On “Social Issues”

As previously reported, “The Orville’s” third episode is the most problematic of those released to critics, taking on the issue of gender identity with an allegory that is so lacking in subtlety that it barely counts as an allegory. (When asked about it at the Television Critics Association press tour, MacFarlane said that “part of the fun of science fiction is to tell stories that have relevance but that exist in the world of make-believe.”)

Commenting on the present day under the guise of a futuristic narrative is a time-honored “Trek” tradition, but the show proves ill-equipped to handle an incredibly heavy issue like this, and the attempt only further complicates the show’s many problems with tone. Committing to the comedy genre doesn’t mean that the show would have to avoid tackling real issues, but it would mean that it’d have a clearer perspective on its approach.

THE ORVILLE: L-R: J Lee and Scott Grimes in the ÒAbout a GirlÓ episode of THE ORVILLE airing Thursday, Sept. 21 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Jordin Althaus/FOX

4. It’s a Fresh Challenge

While plenty of popular shows, such as “Mork and Mindy,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “ALF,” have featured aliens on Earth, actual space-set sitcoms are hard to track down, and have a tendency to be very short-lived. Take the 1977-1978 “Quark,” starring Richard Benjamin as an intergalactic garbage man, or Paul Feig’s recent Yahoo series “Other Space” (though the fact that the show was being produced for Yahoo might have been one of its biggest issues).

The UK has had marginally more luck with the genre: There is the off-and-on-again comedy “Red Dwarf,” which became a cult hit after its 1988 premiere and is actually releasing a twelfth season this fall in the UK, as well as “Hyperdrive,” a less-successful 2006-2007 comedy starring Nick Frost that did last two seasons.

As mentioned above, the half-hour space comedy is not an easy genre to tackle — the sort of creative challenge that might have truly sparked the “Orville” team, pushing them out of the confines of the genre they were mimicking to attempt a fresh tone. Because there’s no pre-established framework with which MacFarlane and his writers would be adapting to their purposes, they’d actually have to create something new. Which would be genuinely exciting to see.

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