It’s been somewhat impossible to detangle any critical consideration of Fox’s “The Orville” from “Star Trek,” the franchise to which it’s hard to deny a connection. But even when evaluating “The Orville” on its own merits at the start of Season 1, the first three episodes screened by critics were hard-going, as Seth MacFarlane’s “space adventure” featured a wildly fluctuating tone, major pacing issues, and entire scenes that served only to deliver exposition.
It was enough to inspire a harsh review when the show premiered. But while the problems with those early episodes were numerous, some of them could be attributed to the sort of stumbles that occur at the beginning of any new series.
After seeing the full first season, there’s no denying that there are elements of the show that have gotten the opportunity to stand out as more than just pastiche. Here, in fact, is a list of things about “The Orville” that are good:
- On a craft level, the production design has been top-notch — the money spent on building the Orville as a standing set really shows, and is perhaps one of the series’ best investments.
- The visual effects are especially striking for a TV budget. There’s no official word on how much, exactly, this show costs, but no expense seems to have been spared.
- The alien and creature design has also shown some imagination, with some neat variants on the classic “Trek” bumpy forehead/weird ears.
- Along those lines, the concept of Yaphet (a sentient CGI blob voiced by Norm MacDonald) might have felt like a one-off joke in the pilot, and his dogged pursuit of Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) has at times bordered on harassment. However, the writers have found some fun things to do with the concept of a gelatinous crew member. Also, the former “Weekend Update” anchor proves to be capable of delivering technobabble dialogue with no irony whatsoever, which you might not normally expect.
- Beyond high-profile appearances from Rob Lowe, Charlize Theron, and Liam Neeson, guest stars have included the welcome and familiar appearances of Chad L. Coleman (gotta love a “Wire” alumni), Kelly Hu, Brian Thompson, Robert Picardo, and more.
- Most of Episode 8, “Into the Fold,” focuses on Jerald, who may be the best actor on the series. It’s a very simple episode centered on Dr. Finn and Isaac trying to save her children from a primitive planet, but Jerald sells the hell out of it.
- MacFarlane’s initial claims that “The Orville” would be completely non-serialized have been proven to be completely false, but that’s actually been to the show’s benefit. Technically, each episode features a stand-alone plot, but there have been repeated callbacks to ongoing character stories that reflect our expectations when it comes to modern-day television.
- “If the Stars Should Appear” (Episode 4) features perhaps the best premise to date, as the Orville crew encounter a mysterious ship containing an isolated civilization.
The best episodes, ultimately, are the ones with the freshest ideas: Episode 7, “Majority Rule,” depicts a society governed by up-voting and down-voting, invoking memories of Reddit, the “Community” episode about “MeowMeowBeenz,” and the “Black Mirror” episode “Nosedive” — it has a compelling moral, but the idea itself is stale.
However, as “Majority Rule” is set in a society that is meant to have evolved only to the equivalent of Earth’s 21st century, it’s the only episode where a joke about “American Idol” felt at all relevant. The 20th and 21st-century pop culture references remain present and jarring — especially when a non-human character says they don’t understand, because then either the human character who made the joke proceeds to explain it, or simply shrugs it off, saying “never mind.”
No matter which version of this moment happens, it never really works and only amplifies the fact that these jokes feel out of place, not to mention a waste of time when you consider that instead of riffing on centuries-old pop culture, “The Orville” could instead be giving the audience more insight into this future society. World-building goes beyond calling replicators “synthesizers,” after all. Every “Friends” joke is a failed opportunity to teach us more about the 25th century as “The Orville” imagines it.
The pop culture jokes aren’t the biggest issue, though. Nor is the writers’ room addiction to ending scenes with someone gasping some variation of “Oh my god!” (Do not use this as a drinking game trigger, for the sake of your liver.)
“The Orville” shows every indication of taking itself seriously, but when MacFarlane and the rest of the cast tries to shift between moments requiring them to be lovable goofs to more serious moments, it completely undercuts the message and tone.
More often than not the show, in an effort to create a fun and irreverent tone, is dismissive about the work this crew is meant to be doing, with characters often performing at a subpar level or behaving like jerks. It’s something the show acknowledges more often than not, sometimes even directly: In Episode 8, “Into the Fold,” when Alara reads out a damage report that includes the fact a crew member spilled soy sauce on his pants, Ed flat-out says “we gotta get better people.”
People having fun in space is one thing, but it doesn’t work when blended with the quasi-military structure and real-life stakes that were the foundation of “Star Trek.” The crews of the Enterprise, Deep Space Nine and Voyager made the occasional mistake, but they were always, indisputably, good at their jobs. And passionate about them! So many episodes of “The Orville” end with an inspirational message or tone, but the characters themselves don’t spark much admiration, literally responding with fart noises at the wonders of space travel (Episode 4, if you’re wondering).
It makes you appreciate why Gene Roddenberry, in his original vision for “Trek,” made such a big point about his characters being aspirational. There are clear signs of the “Orville” characters attempting to learn and grow, but it’s frustrating to watch an episode like the season finale, “Mad Idolatry,” the plot of which is fueled by Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) making bad decision after bad decision, followed by Ed (MacFarlane) making a few bad ones of his own. It leads to a final denouement in which the characters seem to have learned from mistakes that should have been obvious, and we’ll see in Season 2 how that affects things. But watching people do dumb things has never lent itself to sophisticated comedy — or drama.
The ultimate problem remains: A comedic take on a space exploration show would work a lot better if it had its own style. When watching “The Orville,” the writing, editing, music, and sound effects are so reminiscent of “Star Trek,” especially the “Next Generation” years, that you’re lulled into embracing those familiar rhythms. And if you’ve never watched a “Trek” series in your life, part of what leads you to embrace them to begin with — there’s a reason why the formula has worked for decades.
But then there are fart noises, or stupid choices, or entire scenes devoted to mocking the alien biology of the non-human crew members in a way that ends up coming off as cruel, and it all falls apart. There’s clearly interest in telling engaging stories in the classic “Trek” tradition, using the future as a metaphor for our present. And when “The Orville” figures out how to do that in its own voice, with characters who behave like grown-ups, that potential may be fully realized.