REVIEW: Seth Macfarlane’s ‘The Orville’ is Not What it Looks Like

When you think of Seth Macfarlane, what comes to mind? For me, it’s rapid-fire jokes built around various pop-culture references; raunchy stoner humor a la the Ted movies; maybe the Brian Griffin voice or the Stewie voice or the Ted voice.

The best thing you can do before you check out The Orville, Macfarlane’s new series on FOX, is forget about all of that.

Because this show is not rapid-fire jokes built around various pop culture references: it’s a largely traditional adventure show built around a single pop culture reference (a show they would rather we not mention that rhymes with “Car Wreck”) with some workplace comedy elements.  

In only his second live-action screen role (after the feature film A Million Ways to Die in the West), Macfarlane plays Ed Mercer, a starship officer finally granted a captaincy on the exploratory vessel U.S.S. Orville after a rough year of drinking and sub-optimal adventuring brought on by the collapse of his marriage. Mercer is thrilled to take command of the Orville until he learns that his first officer will be his ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who he caught in bed with a blue goo-spewing alien.

The crew is populated by some fun characters, starting with Ed’s debaucherous best pal Gordon (Scott Grimes, who voices Steve Smith on Macfarlane’s American Dad!), who is both the best helmsman in the galaxy and a little too aware that he is the best helmsman in the galaxy; Penny Johnson Jerald (The Larry Sanders Show) as the ship’s doctor; Bortus, the ship’s second officer and token non-humanoid on the bridge; and Alara, a junior security officer whose home planet has such an intense gravitational pull, she has incredible strength physical anywhere else (kind of a like a certain superhero whose name rhymes with “Pooper Fan”).

Pretty soon the crew is sent on a routine supply-drop mission that — MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD — turns out not to be so routine, and Mercer leads the crew through a high-stakes adventure that is clearly the first of many (the good Lord and Nielsen Live+7 ratings willing).

There are not a lot of hour-long comedies out there, which is the first clue that The Orville is a departure from Macfarlane’s previous projects, and Macfarlane’s taking the lead role may turn out to hurt the show’s reception. Not because Macfarlane is bad (he’s a little green, but generally fine), but because it creates the expectation that this is going to be like Family Guy or American Dad! in space. It’s not that. It’s a largely traditional adventure show, an adventure show that expects us to get caught up in the adventures and root for the heroes and be scared of the sci-fi threat of the week, that also happens to have jokes.

Most of the jokes land, sparse as they are, and I would expect that hit percentage to improve as the performers grow into their characters and find their rhythm as an ensemble, and the writers begin to play to those strengths. Most of the humor is character-based (Gordon and Bortus make a good comic pair from the jump, and the ongoing tension between Mercer and Kelly provides a lot of good catty jokes about their divorce) or rooted in petty workplace concerns (there is an amusing discussion in the pilot whether soft drinks are allowed on the bridge), plus a lot of goofing on various alien body functions and sci-fi concepts. (Obviously, there is not a lot of room for contemporary pop-culture references on a show set in the 25th century, but that is a refreshing change of pace from Macfarlane’s other shows.)

The Orville isn’t perfect, but few comedies are in their first few episodes. There is a lot of room to grow here, and the concept — a traditional, if often irreverent, sci-fi adventure show — has a lot of promise. Macfarlane has already announced that all-time greats Jeffrey Tambor and Holland Taylor will be playing his parents, and Charlize Theron has been confirmed to guest on an episode, so there is every reason to think this show will be around for a while.

The two-part premiere of The Orville airs after the NFL games on FOX September 10 and September 17 before settling into its regular Thursday timeslot at 8pm September 21; episodes will appear next day on-demand.

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