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REVIEW: THE ORVILLE Just Wants to Have Fun

By on September 8, 2017

THE ORVILLE: L-R: Seth MacFarlane, Halston Sage and J Lee in the “About a Girl” episode of THE ORVILLE Co. Cr: Jordin Althaus/FOX

I’ll be honest. I’m three episodes into FOX’s new scifi comedy series The Orville, and I’ve been thrown for a loop. This show is not what I thought, either in the comedy or drama departments.

Less a love letter to the many iterations of Star Trek over the years, and more a slice of ardent fan fiction, this new show is unapologetically cast in the mold of classic Trek. And it takes itself more seriously than recent joke-laden promo trailers advertising the premiere might lead you to assume.

Here’s the thing. The Orville may have been created by FOX golden boy Seth MacFarlane but it’s got the fingerprints of Star Trek’s Brannon Braga all over it. In fact, with Braga (executive producer of Star Trek TNG, Voyager and Enterprise) behind all 13 episodes of the series’ first season, The Orville is capable of spinning a surprisingly Trek-like hour of drama and science fiction between all the gaffes and ex-wife jokes.

About those jokes. Surprisingly (there’s that word again) there are fewer than expected. This is not Family Guy in space, and the gags tend to represent what’s worst about the show, running as they tend to do, along a limited track of toilet humor/stoner humor/drinking humor and last, but by no means repeated only once, ex-wife humor. It all gets a little jarring after the first episode because The Orville doesn’t quite seem to know whether to be a comedy or a straight up scifi drama, and you’ll find yourself constantly sideswiped by the sudden changes in tone.

Ultimately, a lot of your enjoyment of The Orville may depend on how you feel about Star Trek, and more importantly how you feel about a comedy version of same that doesn’t strive to present a pastiche of the genre like the wonderful Galaxy Quest, but rather just to insert comedic moments because it’s also a comedy.

Described by the network as a a live-action, one-hour space adventure series set 400 years in the future, the series follows the adventures of the U.S.S. Orville, a mid-level exploratory spaceship. Its crew, both human and alien (sometimes very alien), face “the wonders and dangers of outer space,” while also dealing with the problems of everyday life.

THE ORVILLE: L-R: Adrianne Palicki and Seth MacFarlane in the “Command Performance” episode of THE ORVILLE
Co. Cr: Jordin Althaus/FOX

Set in the year 2417, the action kicks off when the Federation Planetary Union promotes Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) to captain The U.S.S. Orville, an exploratory vessel. Ed’s enthusiasm for his new position is diminished when his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), is assigned to be his First Officer.

While almost every character you see will remind you of a Trek counterpart, each has been tweaked to simultaneously disabuse you of that very notion at the same time. For example, Lieutenant Commander Data’s Orville counterpart is clearly the android-esque Isaac the Kaylon (Mark Jackson), a race known for their eye-watering racism. Meanwhile, Peter Macon takes on the role of Bortus, who seems lifted almost entirely from Michael Dorn’s Lieutenant Worf, complete with lumpy head ridges, an absence of humor … and a digestive system that necessitates the use of a bathroom only once per year. Then there’s the holodeck, complete with artificial adversaries that have been re-programmed to challenge the crew to a dance off, set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

And while The Orville really does just wanna have fun, it is perhaps at its most engaging when it stays the dramatic scifi course. The first handful of episodes we reviewed included a surprisingly thoughtful examination of gender reassignment, humanity’s staggering hubris in our relationship to animals in zoos, the loneliness of command, and how women’s equality is viewed through the lens of masculinity. Have we seen these themes before? Absolutely. Does it matter? Maybe not, depending on your love of the genre. Personally I enjoyed it. After all, one of the Star Trek franchise’s most appealing aspects was its use of the medium of science fiction and speculative fiction to draw parallels to modern day problems. The Orville is clearly a devotee of that idea, so much so that you might forget you’re watching a comedy, until the next joke lands — with the occasional leaden thump.

The Orville may just wanna have fun. Too bad old school classic scifi moments keep getting in the way.

ScreenSpy Score: C+

The Orville kicks off the first part of a two-night special series premiere on Sunday, Sept. 10 (8:00-9:00 PM ET) following the NFL Doubleheader on FOX. Part two follows on Sunday, Sept. 17 at the same time.

The series then settles into its regular time period of Thursdays (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on Sept. 21.

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