Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'The Orville' Could Be the Best Thing Seth MacFarlane Has Ever Created

The Orville is better than Star Trek: Discovery.  I say this, not because I hate the latter – I enjoy them both – but the former, throughout its 12-episode debut season in general, is genuinely more fun, endearing, and worthwhile.

As what I already shared before (in my first article about The Orville and Star Trek Discovery), I didn’t know at first what to make of it.  The pilot felt a bit gawky and wobbly.  But as I continued to watch week after week, I got to grasp what it was going for more and more, appreciate it more and more, until I eventually found myself getting immersed and loving almost every single thing about it.

The first thing to be established about The Orville is it’s not trying to be a parody of the old-school Star Trek, as what many – including I – initially assumed.  It’s more accurate to call it a “comedic-leaning” homage.  Once that’s understood, the sense of awkwardness from the initial impression is shed off, and the show totally works.  As what I’ve written before:
The Orville is first and foremost a transparent attempt to bring back classic Star Trek – particularly the spirit of the original show and The Next Generation – on TV.  And, in my opinion, it mostly succeeds in channeling the essential tropes, optimistic tone, the slight camp, and narrative style of Star Trek.
Indeed, the show is in the same ballpark as Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.
Even its ensemble of characters – the crew of the USS Orville – is almost derived from the stereotypical Star Trek mold.  The central character is Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), who embodies the positive qualities and leadership acumen of every great Trek captain, but also has some awkwardness and clumsiness in him for comic effect.  Since captaining a Union cruiser has been a lifelong dream of his, he’s thrilled when he’s given command of the Orville, though he also has to deal with carrying the emotional baggage of having his cheating ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki, G.I. Joe: Retaliation’s Lady Jaye and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Bobbie Morse a.k.a. Mockingbird), as his First Officer.  The rest of his crew are made of the Second Officer Lieutenant Commander Bortus (Peter Macon), a stoic Worf-analogue who belongs to a single-gender alien species; Chief of Security Lieutenant Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), a young, inexperienced officer belonging to a super-strong alien species; helmsman Lieutenant Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), Ed’s practical-joke-loving best friend and considered to be the best pilot in the Union fleet; navigator-turned-Chief Engineer Lieutenant Commander John LaMarr (J. Lee), Malloy’s partner-in-crime and a genius who keeps his intelligence a secret from others; Chief Medical Officer Lieutenant Commander Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald, Castle’s Captain Gates), a distinguished doctor and a dedicated single mother; Science and Engineering Officer Isaac (Mark Jackson), a Data-analogue who is a member of a highly-advanced, highly-intellectual, artificial, non-biological alien race that deems organic races like humans as inferior to them and who has agreed to serve in the Orville in order to study human behavior; and Lieutenant Yaphit, a gelatinous engineer who constantly hits on Dr. Finn, and is delightfully voiced by the legendary Norm MacDonald.  Each one is extremely likable, and all are given opportunities, at different episodes, to be fleshed out.
Another major aspect that The Orville reflects from old-school Trek is that it doesn’t do much action and spectacle (that’s Star Trek Discovery’s department).  Instead, each episode is reliant on a well-written script – meaning, good storytelling and dialogue.  And the show thrives this way.

Each new episode is sure to bring something interesting and new.  It’s almost never predictable.  Hence, I genuinely found myself looking forward to each new installment.

Moreover, just like how classic Trek was known for exploring present issues through its futuristic stories, The Orville also proceeds to do some social commentary through creative science fiction scenarios.  And it succeeds in being mostly thought-provoking, objective, and imaginative about it.  Heck, it even gets wonderfully Twlight Zone-y at times.  Sure, some of its plot themes may sometimes be heavily inspired by concepts taken from classic Trek or other sci-fi shows like Black Mirror, but its execution of these very much comes off as fresh and engaging, and the resulting reflection is timely and insightful.

Of course, the one big way that The Orville is different from Star Trek is the humor.  And, in my opinion, once one becomes familiar with what the show is going for, it gets pretty funny.  The jokes occasionally incite laughter, but even when they don’t, they almost always make you go, “Oh, that’s amusing.  Hehe.”  Again, it’s not a spoof; it’s not a sitcom.  So it doesn’t go overboard with the comical elements.  Simply speaking, it’s how Star Trek: The Next Generation might have turned out to be if there’s as much intent for comedy as drama.
Kudos to Seth MacFarlane.  It’s much apparent that this is a passion project of his.  But though there are certain things here that appear like fan fantasies being played out, it doesn’t feel self-indulgent at all.  And with all the things he got right with The Orville, he’s likely a huge, knowledgeable, obsessive Star Trek nerd (maybe even in the same way that Stephen Colbert is a huge, knowledgeable, obsessive Lord of the Rings nerd), and he’s keen of paying tribute to it while also having fun along the way.

Now, I’ve never really been a MacFarlane fan.  I had some laughs with Family Guy, and I liked Stewie, but I never became invested with the show.   I thought he was hilarious in a couple of his roast hosting gigs.  I thought Ted was great – its sequel, not so much (though there’s a handful of brilliant jokes there).  And I was blown away of his singing.  The man is definitely talented, but I’ve seen him miss more than he hits.  But he really revealed a different, more appealing side in creating The Orville.  Usually, as a content creator, he’s unapologetically bastardizing and crude, especially in bringing his brand of comedy about – some of which hits, some misses (again, more of the latter than the former).  But there’s restraint and thoughtfulness in The Orville, resulting to a sense of quality craftsmanship and charm never before seen in a MacFarlane project.  Thus, I believe this will turn out being his greatest work.

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