Seth MacFarlane's 'The Orville' Isn't A Bad Show, It's Just Not What We Expected

When Fox first dropped the trailer for The Orville last spring, people quickly developed a fully formed expectation of what Seth MacFarlane's new show was going to be. It was chalk-full of jokes (evidently most of the jokes that would wind up in the final cut of the Pilot), making it look like a Galaxy Quest/Spaceballs type spoof of Star Trek that it seemed like everyone had wanted, especially at a time where a debate over the status of that venerable science fiction franchise has been raging, thanks to some choices CBS has made with Star Trek: Discovery, which is also set to premiere this September.

So the problem with The Orville isn't that it's a bad show. It isn't even that it isn't funny, although it could have definitely been funnier. It's that it's not the show that people needed it to be. And there's a lot to be said about what expectations and what they can do when you're trying to form an opinion about something. Think about a movie and how a misleading trailer can leave you feeling rotten, regardless of how the movie itself turned out to be. Marketing TV and the actual creative art of making TV are two very different things, and what people were told The Orville was going to be and what Seth MacFarlane made are so different that I can almost understand why critics have been so harsh on it.

But like I said, it's not a bad show. As far as Star Trek knockoffs with a tinge of comedy and sarcasm to them go, it's actually pretty good. The show follows Captain Ed Mercer and the crew of the titular Orville, a middle-class exploratory vessel in Earth's future, as they go on space adventures, fight a generically menacing alien race called the Krill, and deal with the politics among the crew, including how Mercer's first officer is his well-meaning ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). The pilot has Ed getting accustomed to his new gig and crew and fighting off the Krill as they to get their hands on some dangerous new technology.

It's exactly what you'd expect a big star trek fan like MacFarlane would make, especially with the Fox's coffers at his disposal. The pilot, directed by Jon Favreau and boasting a lot of talent both in front of and behind the scenes (including people who had previously worked on Trek, like Brannon Braga and composer John Debney, who makes The Orville sound a lot like the show it's inspired by), looks amazing, with high production values and the best CGI and makeup and prosthetics that TV can buy these days. The story of the pilot is pretty simple and familiar but solid, and it even has a few pretty decent laughs. And the cast, led by MacFarlane himself and boasting the talents, among others, of Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald and, in a guest-starring role, Victor Garber, is solid through-and-through.

In other words, The Orville stands on its own as a pretty decent science fiction series, and despite every attempt MacFarlane makes to make it derivative and reminiscent of the Star Trek we all grew up with, there actually is some originality to it, and it all stems from a love for Trek so genuine on MacFarlane's part that it translates into the kind of irony some of have towards that kind of franchise, an irony that is the source for most of the humour in the pilot. For example, there's literally a scene where a character is going to the bathroom, which is something I'm sure every Trek fan has always wanted to see. There's banter between characters that feels real, even though we're in this surreal setting, and MacFarlane himself provides a grounded commentary on a lot of what's happening through his character, Captain Ed Mercer. Some of it feels contrived, like Adrianne Palicki as first officer Kelly Grayson, who happens to be Ed's ex-wife and happens to be providing a gentle push for his career, unbeknownst to Ed, or Scott Grimes' Gordon Malloy, the renegade helmsman of The Orville whose character archetype has been a staple of science fiction long before even Han Solo made it a trope.

But it otherwise mostly works. Where it might falter is, again, in that idea of expectations. We were all told that Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, of American Dad, of Ted, was making a spoof of Star Trek-like science fiction. There's a certain joke-per-minute expectation that comes with it, a certain tone, even. I mean, we're talking about the guy who went out of his way to lazily parody the parodies of a genre with A Million Ways To Die In The West, a man who made a movie about a crude sentient Teddy Ruxpin, a man who's made a career out of making fun, out of finding the lowest common denominator of jokes. But, curiously, that's not who Seth MacFarlane is. Seth MacFarlane is a talented man who appreciates the things he grew up to make fun of. He's a man who loves Star Trek and science fiction to the point where cast members from all of the shows and movies have recurring guest spots on Family Guy. He's a guy who puts a surprising amount of care in the projects he still has an active hand in. Frankly, none of us should have been surprised that his Star Trek "spoof" was just actually a Star Trek homage with a couple of jokes sprinkled in.

So the question isn't whether or not The Orville is good, because, for what it is, it's actually pretty good. The question instead centers around whether or not we need The Orville, and whether or not we should be pissed off that these expectations we had of it turned out to be false. Personally, I don't mind, because there's clear love and care in the crafting of this show. If it can be a little more funny, and a little more of its own show and not just what MacFarlane wanted his version of Star Trek to be before realizing he'd never get it, then I believe there's definitely a place for it, and there's definitely potential in what it can become.

The Orville's Pilot shows some potential, potential which is visible after shedding possibly unwarranted expectations, and for that, it gets 6.5 space adventures out of 10.