WASHINGTON, September 23, 2017 – Fox Network’s uniquely ambitious space opera “The Orville” may go down as the most inexplicable show of the still unfolding Fall 2017 TV season. Whether it will survive its initial episode order is another matter.
Created by – and starring – Seth MacFarlane, a Hollywood jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who’s perhaps known as the inventor of the long running adult cartoon series “The Family Guy” – “The Orville” can best be described as a dramedy homage to the story line and the first-generation progressive theology of TV’s original “Star Trek” series.
In fact, that’s close to the way MacFarlane has defined the new series. It’s his effort to put some utopian “family values” back on television as opposed to the vicious nastiness and smutty humor that drives much of today’s nihilistic TV fare.
The problem is, MacFarlane’s “family values” are Hollywood’s “family values.” Via “The Orville,” Flyover Country’s deplorable “bitter clingers” are being evangelized yet again by the same secular, leftist priesthood that drove them, in decisive numbers, to support Donald Trump in Election 2016. That’s no way to win audience share.
But Hollywood in general and TV in specific have been politically clueless since Ronald Reagan took up residence in the White House in 1981. Nothing much has changed since that time, and if anything, the situation gotten worse. Just take a look at the nightly “progressive” proselytization that drives late-night network TV talk shows these days. But we digress.
“The Orville” recalls the look and feel of the original “Star Trek” series, except that the very basic special effects, while clearly inexpensive, are light years better than they were during the early voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
The central plot is somewhat routine but again re-creates to an extent, the raison d’être of its outer space predecessor. Instead of being captained by William Shatner’s daring, roguish (and frequently corny) James Tiberius Kirk, the good ship Orville is captained by an aimless and discredited nonentity, Ed Mercer (MacFarlane).
Strings have been pulled by his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) to get Ed the job. She then maneuvers the system to get appointed as his second in command. As we eventually discover, the couple were divorced after Ed discovers Kelly in flagrante with a colorful space alien when he enters his bedroom after returning from his latest mission.
Kelly’s re-entry as a key member of his crew creates one of the “family” conflicts any ensemble series needs, although the couple’s rivalry – and Kelly’s clear attempt to reignite the couple’s old passions – are telegraphed rather heavily throughout the first three episodes. This gives the show, at times, a “Honeymooners” feel that seems extraordinarily out of place in a 2017 “progressive” space epic.
“The Orville’s” main cast is rounded out with the addition of Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) – an old Ed Mercer buddy with an equally dicey reputation among the bigwigs in Fleet Command – plus another key officer, the imposingly weird alien, Lieutenant Commander Bortus (Peter Macon). It’s Bortus who inadvertently takes “The Orville” on the more or less politically correct moral journey forming the story arc linking episodes 2 and 3 of the new series.
Other characters include ship’s doctor Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), Chief Security Officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), and Isaac (Mark Jackson), a rather ill defined robotic character who does technical stuff but is avowedly more interested in studying those irrational characters known as human beings.
The parallels of the Orville’s crew and the original Star Trek and Next Generation crews are generally quite clear. But happily, MacFarlane and company creates characters that are functionally distinct. So is the rather more mundane purpose of the Orville’s initial mission schedule, which involves routine visits to and inspections of friendly space outposts.
Predictably, however, the ship’s initial mundane mission ends up taking the crew on voyages where “no one has gone before.” This, along with the generally humorous squabbling among members of Mercer’s still-gelling crew, drives the series’ initial three episodes, the most recent of which aired Thursday, September 21.
After Episode 1, the mandatory and generally uneven “let’s introduce our main characters” episode that launches most new series, Episodes 2 and 3 are linked by an ongoing story line that involves our aforementioned weird alien, Lieutenant Commander Bortus. Of course, what’s weird to us is probably normal in Seth MacFarlane’s ideal, diverse universe.
The inhabitants of Bortus’ planet are all male. Yet somehow, they still manage to procreate successfully, delivering their always-male newborns by the time-honored methodology of laying a single egg and then sitting on it. A fairly significant portion of Episode 2 is devoted to standard issue sex humor involved with this novel issue, which also serves to introduce Bortus’ male spouse, Klyden (Chad L. Coleman).
Within the context of the show, Episode 2 leads up to a real shocker: When the egg hatches, Bortus’ and Klyden’s newborn is – gasp – female! That’s statistically impossible, of course, which leads to Episode 3’s laborious trial sequence.
Held on Bortus’ home planet, Bortus and the Orville’s crew – who favor raising the newborn as a female (Bortus has gradually come around to this view) – face off against an alien tribunal that must decide whether this unprecedented act should be permitted, or whether the new baby should get a sex change operation to render her male.
“The Orville” really jumps the shark in Episode 3, clearly lobbying its audience to root for one of several moral choices, all of which are at least mildly repugnant to a significant portion of the show’s potential audience. All at once, in a cacophony of bizarre symbolism, we must:
- Deal with a planet whose people are, apparently by nature, 100 percent homosexual but also able to reproduce.
- Parse a moral system that would permit sex change operations on wrongly sexed infants that unpleasantly calls to mind the genital mutilations performed on young girls by many Muslim communities, equating similar acts among space alien communities as normal and acceptable.
- Internalize the fact that in the hierarchy of diversity and victimhood, LGBT beings are higher on the virtue-signaling totem pole than perpetually victimized females.
MacFarlane is a known, enthusiastic supporter of the LGBT community, which is okay. But that community’s tendency to place itself in a morally superior position to everyone else is presumptuous and, in its extreme, contemptible. It’s surprising that feminists aren’t rebelling out of their demotion on the victimhood totem pole. But that’s a paradox best dealt with in another column.
On the other hand, it must be said that the scripts involving the Episode 2-3 subplot are relatively gentle and usually avoid standard issue leftist condescension toward those who might not be on board with the “new morality.” But the careful sugar coating of the moral paradoxes rampant in Episode 3 is likely designed to ease the PC medicine down unwilling middle-class gullets.
The other story arc that takes up much of Episode 2 involves the clever treatment of a standard-issue story with an inevitable feminist twist. In this episode, when we’re not dealing with the Bortus story, we follow Mercer and Grayson who, in attempting to aid a ship in some mysterious distress, find themselves transported to an alien planet’s zoo exhibit, where they become the zookeeper’s long desired “human” exhibit.
The ship’s crew, of course, has no idea where their chief officers have disappeared, as the ship in question also vanishes. Due to fleet and military hierarchy, the Orville automatically falls under the command of winning but inexperienced Chief Security Officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage).
Cute, slight of build, and decked out with pointy ears like a female mini-Spock, Sage’s Kitan is initially panicked, and seeks out the council of the ship’s physician, Claire Finn. Finn quietly steadies the capable but panicked Kitan, which leads to a bold rescue mission that concludes with the funniest extended punch line of the first three episodes.
From the first three episodes of “The Orville,” it’s hard to judge whether the series has staying power and will attract a loyal audience beyond the initial 13 episodes contracted by Fox. Politically, it drips left-liberalism and political correctness in ways that likely put the show at odds with at least half – or more – of its potential audience.
The acting in this series thus far is so-so, though it often takes time for cast members to warm to their characters and to themselves early in any series.
The humor is thus far hit or miss, ranging from the standard sex and divorce razzing linked to Mercer and Grayson’s well-known journey to Splittsville, to that excellent multi-level punch line near the end of Episode 2. Still another visual joke involves the rear view of the good ship Orville itself. The propulsion end, we think, strongly resembles an abstract of Mick Jagger’s signature lips and tongue logo.
The special effect are clearly inexpensive but surprisingly smooth and effective within context. As in the budget starved original “Star Trek” episodes, “The Orville’s” special effects are, after all, subordinate to the characters and story lines. So, on a functional basis, each episode is slick, professionally done, and actually shows great attention to detail.
But in the end, the question remains as to whether MacFarlane can rein in his heavily progressive political tendencies to create a space comedy-drama that will attract enough enthusiastic fans on both sides of the aisle to keep this new series on the air past its initial 13 episode order.
We’re not openly hostile to this show. It has a lot of potential. What remains to be seen is if “The Orville” can convince enough lefties to abandon their favorite MSNBC gospel preachers to Fox to switch to an hour of “The Orville” each week, while attracting enough curious Deplorables in the process to hit decent numbers.
Fox didn’t help the new series by airing the first two episodes on Sunday evenings as alternatives to the fast-fading smorgasboard of NFL games, particularly those running on MSESPN.
This week’s switch to the series allegedly permanent Thursday evening time slot dropped its ratings considerably, however, leading us, at least, to wonder whether Fox crippled this ambitious new series at the gate.
We’ll all just have to wait and see. Despite our better judgment, we with MacFarlane and his fledgling crew well. But the show’s slick, PC political slant coupled with Fox’s cavalier time-slot switching, may not allow “The Orville” time enough to find a faithful audience before the Christmas break. (Trailers below.)
“The Orville” now airs on Fox affiliates on Thursdays at 9 p.m. Subject matter is generally adult, but in the context of our times, it falls fairly easily into the PG-13 ratings slot.