I’ve never actually met Seth MacFarlane, so saying I don’t like the guy isn’t a personal dig. I’ve just never been a fan of his style of comedy, especially Family Guy (hate it) and the Ted movies (ugh). And yet somehow I’m enjoying the hell out of The Orville, his new live-action Star Trek homage.
The Orville, which airs Thursday nights on Fox, is not quite halfway through its inaugural 13-episode season—but just in case you haven’t caught up yet, I’ll drop in one of these:
I never got into Family Guy—its sense of humor feels like punching down a lot of the time, and I find its smug “fuck political correctness!” tone more annoying than humorous. I generally enjoy animation that often pushes the boundaries of good taste (Rick and Morty, Archer, Frisky Dingo, South Park, Mr. Pickles, Moonbeam City), but Family Guy just always felt unnecessarily mean. I didn’t outright hate the first Ted movie, which delivered the R-rated ridiculousness you’d expect from a movie about a foul-mouthed living teddy bear; I had a much bigger problem with Ted 2, which decided it needed to be way more sincere and weigh in on civil rights, while still also making “homo” jokes. The combination just didn’t work for me.
And, to be fair, I don’t think The Orville is a perfect show. Episode three, “About a Girl,” aimed to be sincere but got tangled up in its use of gender stereotypes. It’s also a little convenient that MacFarlane—who writes every episode in addition to playing the show’s main character, Captain Ed Mercer—penned himself another role in which he gets to romance Charlize Theron, his co-star in A Million Ways to Die in the West. On The Orville, she guest stars as a seductive time-traveler whose intentions toward Ed are not as genuine as he initially believes. But they do hook up and make Ed’s ex-wife and fellow Orville officer, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), noticeably jealous.
Ed and Kelly’s relationship can be frustrating—they’ve been divorced a year because she cheated on him, a fact that’s repeated too often—and their dynamic is also problematic: Ed’s the wounded dude, while Kelly’s the bitch whose guilt has inspired her to try and make amends. That said, their complicated backstory is actually less annoying than I feared it would be at first. In fact, it actually makes their love-hate interplay, their frequently cutting banter, and their casually-referenced inside jokes feel more realistic. The show has given some hints that they may reconcile, but I fear that would wreck their unique chemistry, so here’s hoping they don’t. Compare their relationship to the raunchy exploits of Family Guy’s Peter and Lois Griffin, and—well, there’s no comparison. Ed and Kelly might have some major drama in their past, but there’s still love and respect between them, and The Orville makes sure we understand that.
Though Kelly and Ed’s personal relationship is important to the show, their professional rapport is also crucial—and it’s much smoother sailing in that department (for the most part). Kelly may have been an unfaithful wife, but she’s a trustworthy and valuable first officer. Right from episode one, “Old Wounds,” The Orville makes sure we know that Ed and Kelly still make a good team. Under fire from the Krill, the show’s enemy aliens, she quickly comes up with a plan to weaponize a redwood seed—saving the ship and ensuring that Ed’s crucial first mission as captain of The Orville is a success.
Though Ed and Kelly are the main roles, the rest of the Orville’s crew are obviously important, too. I was worried that the ship’s petite security chief, Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), would exist only to show off her alien super-strength—and while that is a recurring joke, we’ve also seen unexpected layers to her character. Her first time taking charge of the ship, in episode two’s “Command Performance,” showed that she was able to step up in a time of crisis, and she’s also proven to be a loyal friend to Kelly. The generally expressionless Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) anchored the controversial “About a Girl” episode with surprising emotion, as he wrestled with whether or not to keep with the tradition of his species and surgically alter his newborn child from female to male. The heavy-handed subject matter of that episode might’ve been handled a bit clumsily, but it was a huge step up from the 2010 Family Guy episode about transgenderism, “Quagmire’s Dad,” which was widely criticized by GLAAD and other groups. With that as a comparison point, “About a Girl” felt downright nuanced.
There are still a few characters that haven’t done much beyond provide comic relief—especially J. Lee’s Lt. John LaMarr and Scott Grimes’ Lt. Gordon Molloy—but The Orville is a comedy first and foremost, so that actually makes plenty of sense. Plus, it could be worse. They could be the barely-even-single-joke characters MacFarlane’s animated shows rely on. And the comedy on the show is actually funny, which goes against what I always disliked about MacFarlane’s writing. Previously, I’ve taken issue with his love of being offensive just to be offensive, a kind of humor that inevitably sneers at the viewer who’s, like, too uptight to find it amusing. Maybe it’s the science fiction setting that adds a certain layer of reverence to his scripts, or maybe it’s the fact that the show is live-action, but The Orville’s humor is often genuinely hilarious, and that includes its many insults, nonsequiturs, and under-the-breath asides.
And unlike on Family Guy, the randomness actually serves a purpose. One of the funniest weird moments came in episode four, “When the Stars Should Appear.” After the crew of The Orville happens upon a giant, planet-like starship containing a society that doesn’t realize it’s drifting in space, they blow everyone’s mind by showing them the galaxy overhead for the first time. It’s an awe-inducing moment, and the ship’s no-nonsense Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Clair Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), marks it with a poignant quote. The scene goes like this:
Dr. Finn: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations a remembrance of the city of God.”
Captain Mercer: “Is that... Shakespeare?”
Dr. Finn: “Emerson.”
Captain Mercer: “William Byron Emerson... yes, yes.”
Dr. Finn: “Ralph Waldo.”
Captain Mercer: “Ralph Waldo, yes. Lord... Ralph Waldo Keats David Thoreau, yes.”
The moment celebrates the reveal of the stars above, which is the emotional climax of the episode. But it’s also a perfect illustration of how Ed is finally settling into his role as captain, acknowledging the appropriateness of Dr. Finn’s quote... while also casually displaying his own total lack of knowledge about who said it. It’s just an aside between the two characters, but it goes on for just a beat longer than the viewer would expect, which makes it even funnier. The Orville’s humor has great timing in general, but this might be my favorite example so far.
The show is also full of pop culture references you would not hear on the real Star Trek—there are as many jokes about Seinfeld and Friends, having to play as the thimble in Monopoly, and Destiny’s Child as there is are great jokes poking fun at its genre, as when Ed interrupts a Krill leader’s beamed-in threats to ask the alien to scoot over so he’s more centered on the transmission screen.
Humor aside, the scripts aren’t flawless, as I mentioned, and neither are they especially original. Rick and Morty’s take on “humans in an alien zoo” happened to air the exact same night as the Orville episode that did the same—and the Adult Swim show presented a far more clever take using a lot less screen time (with an escape plan that was way better than The Orville’s, which somehow involved reality TV). But without the freedom of animation, the show musters acceptable special effects on what’s certainly not a Star Trek: Discovery budget. The characters are surprisingly engaging (and surprising, period, as when Liam Neeson, another of MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West co-stars, lent his gravitas for a cameo in episode four). If Family Guy and Ted rubbed you the wrong way—too crass, too shrill, too pleased with themselves, too many off-color jokes—consider The Orville to be a new entry point into MacFarlane’s sense of humor. He’s more versatile than I’ve given him credit for in the past, and way funnier too.