TV Review: Seth MacFarlane’s ‘The Orville’ on Fox

The Orville
Courtesy of Fox

When the dust settles, “The Orville” may emerge as the most inexplicable show of the new season. It certainly never makes a convincing case for its existence. The first impression — that it exists so that creator and star Seth MacFarlane can do elaborate “Star Trek” cosplay — is only reinforced over the course of the tepid trio of episodes that kick off the show.

MacFarlane has said he created “The Orville,” which also serves as the name of the ship its characters use to travel the galaxy, in order to put aspirational sci-fi back on television. He’s not wrong about the fact that too many shows lack both the humanistic optimism that defines “Star Trek” and the structural rigor the franchise’s TV writers displayed at their best.

But the way to pay homage to all things “Trek” (and “Twilight Zone”) is not with derivative storylines that awkwardly mix the frat-bro humor found on MacFarlane’s animated programs with unexceptional space adventures. “The Orville” attempts a mind-meld between classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and warmed-over “Family Guy,” but it never really gets there.

That’s not the only issue. On small and large screens, one of “Star Trek’s” most consistent faults is casting good actresses in key roles yet treating their characters with condescending and even sexist attitudes at times. As it dutifully excavates the Federation legacy, “The Orville” imports that deflating habit as well.

Adrianne Palicki’s Kelly Grayson, the ship’s second-in-command, is defined almost completely by the resentment that Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and his best bro, navigator Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), display toward her. Ed and Kelly used to be married, but their relationship went sour: In the opening scene of “The Orville,” Ed finds Kelly cheating on him, and he never misses an opportunity to remind her of that.

And yet, even though her ex and his buddy frequently scold and try to shame her, “The Orville” would have viewers believe she may want to get back together with him. Kelly even says at one point she wants to “atone” for her actions, which is why she pulled strings to be assigned with her ex, who apparently wasn’t a very good husband. Perhaps an alien could find logic in that scenario, but it’s elusive to the human mind.

Palicki, who’s brisk and winning. does her best with the material she’s given, but most of the writing for Kelly and Ed is so flat and predictable that their love lives actually grow less interesting over time.

As an actor, MacFarlane displays basic competence, but he does not have the charisma or chops to carry an entire season of an hourlong drama, nor is he able to set the right tone for the show. Of course, that would be difficult for anyone, given “The Orville’s” inconsistency about what it wants to be. It tries to be light and comedic, except when it’s a morality play or an action hour or a hangout comedy set in space. It doesn’t help that most of the jokes don’t display the liveliness of a batch of Tribbles.

On an aesthetic level, “The Orville” doesn’t make any notable attempts to update the pastel, blue and black palette that various “Star Treks” were addicted to back in the day, which feels like a missed opportunity. All in all, the echoes of other journeys from past eras make for a superficial and undistinguished voyage. There’s a robotic character, scenes set in shuttle bays, clashes with warlike races, among other standard sci-fi elements. Most of the aliens have bumpy foreheads and otherwise resemble dozens of “Trek” races through the ages.

There is an attempt to do something unusual with one species: An officer aboard the Orville named Bortus (Peter Macon) is from a planet populated exclusively by males, as is his mate, Klyden (Chad L. Coleman). The third installment, which is devoted entirely to their efforts to expand their family, is one of the most spectacular and unfortunate storytelling fails of the year.

An air of self-congratulation hangs over the entire hour, as if MacFarlane, who wrote it, couldn’t get over his awe at his own bravery in engaging with a difficult, complex topic. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the show takes a big creative swing tackling issues of gender and identity, but it does not connect, and the end result is disastrous. If it’s challenging for “The Orville” to wring laughs from the audience, it’s all but impossible for it to earn the dramatic (and tone-deaf) conclusion it attempts in the third episode.

MacFarlane was part of the team that brought back “Cosmos,” one of the most delightful TV revivals of the last few years. Clearly he cares about space, science and the evolution of the human race, all of which appeal to many TV fans as well (hence the anticipation for CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery”). TV could always use more space-set shows, but “The Orville” just doesn’t boldly go anywhere worth following.

TV Review: Seth MacFarlane's 'The Orville' on Fox

Drama; 13 episodes (3 reviewed). Fox, Sun. Sept. 10 8 p.m. and Sun. Sept. 17, 8 p.m., following NFL games. Regular time slot premiere Thurs. Sept. 21, 9 p.m.

Crew

Executive producers, Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark, Liz Heldens.

Cast

Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J Lee, Mark Jackson, Chad L. Coleman.

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  1. ethan says:

    Your review makes me think about how social justice, political correctness and identity politics have grown in our culture. There are those sensitive to commentary in pop culture media and those that enjoy the media. For a critic who is sensitive to cater to those who simply enjoy is a lack of reflection on the position they took on. A critic’s role is not to advocate for a cause other than the enjoyment of their readers. I saw the trailer and I was very interested, so my longtime habit was to check the reviews. The Metacritic reviews have a huge split between the critics and the users. It seems to me that the critics don’t understand the viewership they are catering to and should be reviewing material which is in their realm. I wouldn’t review things I wouldn’t watch because I don’t have an appropriate perspective and I don’t seek to cultivate one since I am not a professional critic. However a professional critic should seek to cultivate an appropriate perspective.

  2. Jim Hudlow says:

    My friend says this show has been getting bad reviews. Well, I LOVED this show. The parody, the biting humor the absurd idea of a man and his ex serving as captain and XO….plus the action scenes…which are in and of themselves a parody of various star trek series
    ….and so many one line zingers one must pay attention to observe…I really like this show.

  3. bob thrash says:

    A cross between Galaxy Quest and Airplane the movie. I will give it one more chance.

  4. SnowTiger says:

    After the idiots at SyFi cancelled Dark Matter, I won’t be watching any new shows on that network. Reluctant to watch any new outer space shows on other networks as well.

  5. ThomasR says:

    Hmm, saw the first show. Not really impressed. Cutting edge? No. Just seems more of the standard feminist progressive narrative of the beta male husband blamed for the cheating of his wife;, then the rest of the show is about how the idiot man is saved, as well as the rest of the crew, from certain destruction by the brilliance of the Woman, “hear me roar”!

  6. Michael Summerset says:

    Star Trek is dead. The Orville shows we don’t need those tired old IPs anymore. There’s been so much focus on making money off a name that the producers have forgotten to provide just good entertainment. The Orville give us that. It may take a bit to find it’s footing but it looks so far to have a good future.

  7. BrieK44 says:

    It really was bad. The tone was weird because it seemed like it was supposed to be a comedy, but nothing was funny.

  8. Z. Nobles says:

    I do not agree with this review. The Orville is unique. The “grime, dark, and gritty” sci-fi TV shows are a dime a dozen, and fortunately, The Orville does not fit in that mold. The Orville breaks out of that genre and offers something fresh. Star Trek, Discovery has not aired yet, but already it is touting itself as political commentary (anti-Trump) disguised as a TV show – that is not an opinion, that is what Entertainment Weekly and CBS is proudly saying about “Discovery” (source: http://ew.com/tv/2017/09/07/star-trek-discovery-trump-political-divide/). The audience has choices, and as a member of that audience I prefer to be entertained, rather than lectured to. The Orville it is.

  9. LaKeisha says:

    It wasn’t too bad, and was even clever in spots.
    Seth MacFarlane reminds me a lot of Spike Lee in that they are talented writers, who both seem to have some desperate desire to be stars themselves. And just about everything they’ve ever written or produced would have been better if they had NOT cast themselves in it.

  10. Antisethetical says:

    According to Seth MacFarlane’s vision of the future, no one acts professionally. Humanity has ditched maturity and duty for sippy-cups, the-ex-wife’s-a-b**** jokes and dogs licking their own balls.

    Basically, “The Orville,” is a stellar example of MacFarlane’s continued, “shallow and pedantic,” efforts.

    Giggity that.

  11. TheTruthBurns says:

    I have noticed that Star Trek Discovery is getting rave reviews from Critics but Not Star Trek Fans & The Oroville is getting slammed by those same Critics but Not by Star Trek Fans. I am a Star Trek fan since Kirk, Spock & McCoy & have liked all except Enterprise which had great actors & a faithful timeline but it was a Prequel & most prequels are crap. I like the actors in Discovery but it is a prequel that has almost nothing to do with Star Trek as we know it. I will give The Oroville a shot but won’t waste my time on Star Trek Discovery of Propaganda as Entertainment.

  12. Jon says:

    Like a woman doesn’t remind a man when he’s cheated and use it against him!!!!!

  13. neroredivivus says:

    The author is unnecessarily critical, as well as pushing a toxic feminist agenda. Maureen, stfu. Your pedantic groaning is tiresome and banal. I feel stupider and less informed having read your review.

  14. John Miller says:

    It never sounded like it would work, anyway. Is it a Trek parody? Is it not? Why is MacFarlane, who has next to zero charisma, the lead? If “Discovery” strikes out too, that will be 0 for 2 in the Trek-wannabe sweepstakes this fall.

  15. Scott says:

    I’m not a huge fan of Family Guy, or Seth MacFarlane for that matter. But I’m still going to watch The Orville and give it a chance, for the one simple fact that it has 80s’ and 90s’ Star Trek writers and actors behind it. Brannon Braga is executive producing, and he’s worked on numerous Star Trek TV series in the past. You’ve got veteran actors like Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker on Star Trek TNG) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Lieutenant Tom Paris on Star Trek Voyager) directing episodes. And in addition to that, you have other Star Trek actors like Garrett Wang (Ensign Kim on Star Trek Voyager) who have come out vocally and outright said that they would prefer guest-starring on The Orville rather than on the upcoming Star Trek Discovery series.

    Couple all of this with the fact that The Orville is actually airing on TV and not on a small SVOD service that no one wants to pay for (CBS All Access), and the chances of The Orville gaining a large following of fans is pretty good, especially amongst the sci-fi community.

    CBS, on the other hand, has already made several crucial mistakes with Discovery. They created another prequel series, when 90% of the Star Trek community actually wanted a sequel taking place in the distant future, after the events of TNG and Voyager. They filed a lawsuit against the creators of the fan film Axanar, and no matter whether you agree with them or not, that in and of itself left a bad taste in Trekkies’ mouths. Then they decided to restrict the series to All Access after the first episode — an incredibly stupid, yet typical Moonves decision as a pure cash-grab (even though in Canada, the entire Discovery series will actually air on TV on the SPACE channel, which is what CBS should’ve done in the U.S. as well). And then to add insult to injury, within the past few weeks, you’ve had Discovery actors like Jason Issacs (Captain Lorca) further anger the Trek fan-base by saying things like how he “looks forward to the fan outrage” that’ll ensue when traditional sci-fi fans see how different Discovery is from previous Trek series.

    Granted, FOX doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to renewing sci-fi programs (anyone remember Terra Nova?), but at the same time, there is a lack of space-based sci-fi shows on network television right now. Anyone who says otherwise is flat-out lying to your face. There are hundreds of comedies, cop shows, legal dramas, medical doctor programs… you get the picture. But what do we have in the space-based sci-fi genre? SYFY recently cancelled Dark Matter, which means we currently have 4 shows — Killjoys and The Expanse (both of which aren’t airing right now), and Star Trek Discovery and The Orville, the former of which only gets 1 episode aired on TV. In 2018, we get Lost In Space, but again, that’s exclusive to Netflix, so it also won’t air on traditional television either.

    So again, to anyone who uses the argument that we have way too many space-based shows on traditional television right now — open your eyes. If 3 shows constitute “too many” in your mind, maybe you’re not a sci-fi fan at all and you actually hate the genre.

  16. P Stevens says:

    Publically reviewing a new program series episodes that have not aired and without audience reaction is not constructive criticism. That is NOT ‘s what Variety was established to do.

    It disrepects audiences by treating them as childen who need to be protected. Those of the TV audience who like scifi have seen enough bad, enough good solid scifi and enough satirical comedic scifi to be able to judge for themselves whether a show should be encouraged to improve or not. They have the ability today to provide fast, uncensored feedback directly to the producers so that shows can be tweaked and retooled before the second six epidodes are filmed.

    I was a scifi fan long before the original Star Trek series aires and found its first few episodes and more than a few of the others during its brief run to be weak as sciifi and drama, but stayed with that show until it was canceled, because it tried to do something and it often suceeded.

    It took the stale western morality play and put in a new setting that separated the relevent topics of today from their cultural backgrounds so they could be thought about using our better selves and our intellect.

    I believe that Macfarlane’s attempt to take a more lighthanded stab at the same thing. By revealing many of the bad science and implausible things that people take for granted in modern scifi-ish TV series as silly, I think that he will help the audience stay awake without resorting to planets blowing up or civilizations bing destroyed in every epoisode, and show that no matter what the setting, people are going to keep actinmg as they always have.-emotional, foolish and often irrational.

  17. P Stevens says:

    I find it confusing for you to refer to the sexual actity of a divorced person as cheating on their former spouse. It is the cl=[lcak of clarity about when this happened, or do you not understand what a divors=ce. is?

  18. janielmiguel says:

    If Mcfarlane is every bit of a genius as we all know he is, he will not pay attention to criticism from losers, had these same critics taken a stab at Family guy at inception we would have gotten the half baked Simpson’s knockoff review. History has proven even the artists and production team on the simpsons respect the man. Is his way of story telling for everyone ? nope, but I guess we can’t all be perfect.

    I for one will watch it while it last, sure beats watching any other crap on tv right now.

    Wish we had more movies like million ways to die in the west, ted 1 and 2. Not all of us watch tv for insightfulness, it hits the head of atomic cynicism, and fans dig it. I like the way he rebels to common artistry. If he ever pleased people boohooing about the show here, then id be disappointed.

  19. JoeMcG says:

    I haven’t seen this yet, but I’m looking forward to giving it a chance (something I’m not even willing to do with Star Trek: Discovery). It’s about time we had a live-action space-comedy back on the small screen! I think the last US attempt was “Quark” back in 1977-78 (with all due respect to the UK’s Red Dwarf from 1988-on). The trailers remind me more of cross between Galaxy Quest (which itself was a parody of TV SciFi) and ST:TNG. I think MacFarlane’s humor can often run off the rails of decency (which itself is crudely funny), and occasionally runs off the rails of funny, but I’m willing to give it a shot!

  20. Wow, who is paying for these comments? I bet all these commenters can be traced back to Macfarlane’s office.

  21. Your review stinks, the Orville looks a lot better the Star Trek Discovery.

  22. Hnon says:

    Wondering what Les Moonves has on you guys?

  23. Scine says:

    “On small and large screens, one of “Star Trek’s” most consistent faults is casting good actresses in key roles yet treating their characters with condescending and even sexist attitudes at times”–

    Erm, what? Dax, Kira, Janeway. Just off the top of my head. All very strong and inspirational female characters in postions of power and competent influence, but also not just there to promote tiring SJW “gurl pwr” annoyance. Inspiring characters for both female and male audiences. Actually well written and strong female leads… are condescending and even sexist to you? I’m sorry but you clearly have very little knowledge of star trek and character writing at all and you just lost all credibility in my eyes.

  24. segarini says:

    A woman whose sense of humour and familiarity with Sci-Fi and unable to acknowledge McFarland’s creative and comedic skill set has made sure I watch this show. Everything she hates about it is chock-a-block with opportunities for sarcasm, self deprecation, and blowing a raspberry at studio interference, “purists”, and pretentious ‘critics’. God help her if she ever stumbles across Bob’s Burgers or Archer.

  25. JUAN J SOTO says:

    If this review was intended to steer people away from viewing the Orville, it has accomplished the opposite. I am not sure what concessions CBS/Paramount made to Variety for this hit piece, but now people who were going to sample the first episode are now going to try a few before passing judgement. I could have viewed this critique as constructive if it weren’t for the mention of the new Star Trek Discovery series. I am curious as to what her review of that show will be. I have a feeling it will be a glowing endorsement.

  26. Theo Bear says:

    Rumours that CBS are paying for negative reviews of The Orville because Moonves is crapping himself that it will crucify Star Trek Discovery.

    • W. A. says:

      Honestly, would have called you a conspiracy nutter if not for the facts that:
      A) just about every other think I’ve heard so far contradicts this and
      B) it’s almost painfully clear at this point that CBS, Paramount, Netflix, the show runners, and network execs are worried about ‘Discovery’.

      In other words, I think that you may have hit the nail on the head in this case.

  27. Dave Melges says:

    I hate when you can guess the gender of a reviewer by the review. Wah, you don’t like how the female character was written.

    This review is either horribly unbalanced, or this will be one of the worst shows ever to make it to the air…..you manage about 30 negative comments.

  28. Kurt Summer says:

    How can you be that pretentious, as a TV critic? Get over yourself. The show looks like it will be a lot of fun as well as take a swing at being a cut above the usual fare. I’m looking forward to it.

    • Fernando says:

      Wrong. The show is a crossover between ‘comedy’ and drama. But it’s not a dramedy. It’s ‘innovative’ that way. Yikes.

  29. Dana Pearson says:

    WHAT, prey tell, is GOOD on pay tv these days? It’s FULL of garbage…pure crap ! THIS is one show I WILL watch. Seth is brilliant at poking fun at garbage! What ARE your standards? This is one of just a few sci fi shows left… The Expanse, Killjoys , now Orville and Discovery… that makes FOUR shows ill be watching, aside from pbs shows and Nashville. You can keep all the TRASH you seem to cherish more than these

    • Vic Reynauld says:

      Did you even read the review or are you just reacting to the headline? Because if you read the article, you’re going to be VERY disappointed if you expect The Orville to be anything like Family Guy or American Dad. MacFarlane, by his own admission back in August, says he’s trying to make a comedic drama, not a parody or a comedy. Too bad he’s a one dimensional actor outside of his voice work. This show has half a season before cancellation written ALL over it.

    • Dana Pearson says:

      I ment corporate/broadcast tv but much the same applies to pay tv

  30. Anne says:

    Anyone watching network TV for insight or enlightenment is misguided. Seth MacFarlane, a staunch advocate of reading and education, would agree with that. I will be watching “The Orville”, and any project helmed by the exquisite Mr. Macfarlane, because I like him. And I will laugh, the entire reason for watching a television show. If you want to be moved listen to him sing. You can eviscerate the fruits of his labor, but never the man.

    • Vic Reynauld says:

      “the exquisite Mr. Macfarlane”? LOL. Because Ted 2 and A Million Ways to Die in the West were anything close to exquisite? How about his cringe worthy performance in Logan Lucky? MacFarlane is criminally OVERRATED. Even Family Guy and American Dad lost their edge years ago. Voice acting (and singing) is where MacFarlane shines but he’s terrible as an on-screen actor and his writing outside of animated half-hours leaves a LOT to be desired.

      • Anne says:

        As a busy cardiac surgeon I do not engage in rhetoric, and certainly not online with strangers, but I’m on vacation and have a moment.
        The most critical voices are most assuredly covetous. If I may offer some medical advice – It may be difficult to come to terms with your shortcomings, but once you do your mental and physical health will benefit greatly. We can’t all be as handsome, intelligent and talented as Mr. MacFarlane. But fear not, there’s someone out there for everyone…

  31. ... says:

    TV doesn’t need more space shows. They’re as interchangeable as CBS procedurals.

  32. Sam says:

    Do a Family Guy movie and do a sequel starring Stewie and Brian.

  33. Fernando says:

    Unbelievable they gave Mcfarlane budget for this after his A million essays to die in the West disaster.

    He’s just not funny as an actor. And for me neither as a writer.

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