The Orville’s first season obviously spent time introducing us to its quirky ensemble, but it also focused a lot on the crew’s wild and often perilous space adventures. Season two, by contrast, has devoted far more energy to developing its characters—and it’s really paid off in rewarding ways for the series.
In case you’re not caught up on the still-in-progress second season, we’ll just drop this here:
All that emphasis on character development hasn’t meant a severe drop in the show’s action, per se. If you’ve been watching, you know Team Orville is in some deep shit at this very moment, with a two-part episode concluding tonight that’ll determine whether or not the show’s biological life forms (which is to say, all the humans and most of the aliens) are able to prevent a hostile race of artificial life forms from the planet Kaylon from annihilating everyone on Earth. (Fingers crossed.) But overall, we’ve seen fewer episodes that specifically revolve around off-ship exploration, and more stories that explore the relationships between the characters, as well as the characters’ own self-awareness.
This trend isn’t a total about-face for The Orville—season one definitely had its introspective moments, like when Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) and his husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman), who hail from the overwhelmingly male (and culturally complicated) planet of Moclus, had to decide what to do when Bortus laid an egg containing a female baby. The show also devoted quite a lot of time to watching Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) get in his feelings about his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who joined the Orville’s crew as first officer. But season two has really leveled up in unexpectedly emotional ways.
We’ve seen Kelly and Ed start dating other people—which made for some very awkward exchanges, though both of their new relationships ended up fizzling. Kelly’s boyfriend was taking things more seriously than she was comfortable with, while Ed’s super cool lady friend was...revealed to be a revenge-minded, hostile Krill alien in disguise.
A scene in a recent episode had chief of security Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr), a new addition to the crew, wonder why Kelly and Ed don’t just get back together—it’s quite obvious there’s still a lot of love between them. But it’s not that simple; season one ended with Kelly breaking off their nascent reconciliation for professional reasons, worrying that Ed’s feelings for her might shade his judgment when making crucial leadership decisions as the ship’s captain. That’s an excellent reason for them to not rekindle their romance, though there’s also something hopeful about The Orville celebrating exes who—can it be?—manage to put the hurt behind them and emerge as best friends.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen Bortus and Klyden deal with some drama. With tension still lingering over season one’s court-ordered decision to surgically alter their child from female to male—something Klyden wanted, but Bortus didn’t—their marriage is in deep trouble. For Bortus, that manifests in a porn addiction (the Orville’s simulator is capable of a whole range of creatively racy scenarios, as it turns out) that eventually drives a neglected Klyden to seek a divorce—something Moclans obtain by stabbing their mates in the chest. In a later episode, after Bortus and Klyden have repaired their relationship, Bortus’ ex-mate Locar, a gifted engineer, arrives to help the Orville make some crucial upgrades. Turns out he and Bortus broke up years ago because Locar secretly prefers females—something that’s forbidden and actually illegal for Moclans, whether they’re on their home planet, aboard a Planetary Union vessel, or anywhere a fellow Moclan might discover the truth.
Not understanding Locar’s dire situation, Talla gets entangled in his plight before he fakes his own death and frames Klyden for the crime—and then she has to make a tough decision between sending an innocent Moclan to jail, or sending another Moclan to a place where his heterosexuality makes him an outcast and a criminal. It’s a heavy plot that requires a lot from the actors involved—all of whom convey complex emotions despite the fact that everyone’s wearing some pretty intense alien make-up.
Even more serious feels have come courtesy of the budding romance between Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), the Orville’s chief medical officer, and Isaac (Mark Jackson), a member of a highly intelligent race of artificial beings who’s serving as the ship’s science officer as part of a broader mission to study biological life forms.
There’s a whole episode devoted to their courtship, which includes some sweet dinners (and, uh, other stuff) in the simulator, where Isaac trades his robotic appearance for a human one. Isaac also forms what appears to be an attachment to Claire’s two sons, a relationship that began building last season when the quartet was forced to shelter on a hostile alien planet during a vacation gone awry. But as we learned last week on a visit to Isaac’s Kaylon home planet, all the super intelligence in the galaxy can’t make up for a total lack of humanity, empathy, or compassion. (Hopefully, he’ll have a change of heart, or whatever his heart equivalent is, on tonight’s episode—but things are looking pretty bleak as they currently stand.)
So yeah—we’ve witnessed some majorly soul-crushing and soul-stirring moments on The Orville this season, almost all of which have happened aboard the ship and between the core characters. Now that we’ve gotten to know almost everyone on a deeper level, whatever hijinks they get into in the future will feel more meaningful. And since The Orville is a show that likes to refer back to events that happened in the past, the decisions its characters have made in these more intimate episodes will surely have bearing on future plots, too.
All this is not to say The Orville’s second season has been lacking in the goofy asides and little moments that distinguish it from other sci-fi shows. (This is a Seth MacFarlane production, after all.) You have to wonder if Star Trek: Discovery’s second-season uptick in random bursts of humor (remember the alien crew member with the nasty cold?) are a direct result of The Orville’s particular brand of offbeat levity.
Last season, the characters were getting to know each other just as the audience was getting to know them. This time around, we know some of their personal oddities—like Bortus’ ability to digest literally any object—but we still delight in learning specific new fun facts (like Bortus’ insistent yet furtive fondness for the corner piece of cake), or seeing them act in hilariously anachronistic ways, like when helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and chief engineer John LaMarr (J. Lee) sprint to the bridge, gleefully jazzed to spread the gloriously juicy gossip that Claire and Isaac are going on a date.
Whether or not we’ll spend even more time getting to know the characters—or if the show will start to concentrate anew on space-time rifts, strange new planets, prominent guest stars, Krill battles, etc.—remains to be seen, but whatever happens, this season has been an unexpectedly solid continuation of one of the most surprisingly enjoyable shows on TV.
The Orville airs Thursday nights on Fox.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.