I’m normally not big on reviewing things here, but I had thoughts to share that made this worth a mention. My wife and I watched the premiere episode of The Orville from our DVR last night, and after comparing our impression to some of the critiques online, I find we’re once again at odds with the critics, who seem to have lined up against this show. So I’m going to explain why the critics are wrong.
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. Family Guy is a deeply polarizing show, as is all of MacFarlane’s other work. As a rule I don’t like his style of humor. I saw about one minute of an American Dad episode once, after the TV was left on that channel the night before, in which he failed to land an easy pot shot at Zamphir and followed up with two pedophilia jokes. So yeah, not a MacFarlane fan. But I am a sci-fi fan, and it looked like he was going to tone things down for this show. It was worth a watch.
Immediately I noticed—and I think this is what set a lot of critics off-kilter—that the show takes itself more seriously than I expected, though not so seriously that it can’t find room for jokes. MacFarlane’s own love of Star Trek comes through loud and clear in the way the show acts as a loving homage to its more serious predecessors. So you get the sweeping majestic music, the fun space battles, the away team missions, but then there’s the dialogue that goes places Star Trek would never have gone because it was just a smidge too stuffy.
Just as MASH and Scrubs were crossover types of shows called dramedy, the Orville is a sci-comedy. It lands more on the sci-fi than comedy side, but that’s okay. And it is a very different beast from anything that came before that blended sci-fi with comic relief. Babylon 5 was dead serious much of the time, but marbled through with occasionally funny or touching moments from its brilliant cast. Firefly was all heart, and reveled in those splashes of wit that made it special. The Orville is less serious than those, putting its humor more up front, and yet the plot is driven by the same conventions as its forebears.
This is where the critics are getting lost, because they’ve never seen anything like it. And rather than roll with it, they’re complaining that it’s not something it was never trying to be.
For a look at how stupid some of these critiques are, check out Katharine Trendacosta’s piece at io9. First she complains about how some parts of the episode are “boring”—which they weren’t at all, really, but they weren’t incredibly fast-paced. Remember this was a premiere episode, and it had a lot of exposition and introductions to get through after all, but during those times there was still humor and it tended toward the socially awkward variety. She also complains about “low-brow sex jokes”, but nothing really came close to that—especially for MacFarlane. (Yes, his character Ed Mercer did talk about how his friend drew penises on things, and there was a sight gag at the beginning, referenced in passing later as a callback, that I guess could sort of qualify as a sex joke, but honestly none of it was bad by modern standards and those jokes actually landed.) Then Katharine goes on to compare The Orville unfavorably to several blatant parodies like Galaxy Quest, Spaceballs, etc. Even Mars Attacks. Anyone who calls themselves a critic who thinks you can just idly compare anything to a Tim Burton weirdfest without getting into the weeds on minutae is an idiot.
The Orville is not Galaxy Quest or Spaceballs. It never meant to be either one. Because it is not a parody at all; it’s a sci-fi that means to stand alone but doesn’t mind making a few clever references to, and occasional well-meaning jabs at, the material that inspired it. Katharine doesn’t get that at all.
Erik Kain of Forbes gets it and had some nice things to say, but I won’t link to Forbes because of the rotten things their site does to paranoid readers. He points out that Kelly Lawler of USA Today—and I’m not linking them either for the same reason—makes many of the same mistakes as Katharine Trendacosta, believing the show has to be a direct parody or a serious sci-fi to work and that mixing the two is somehow bad. It isn’t. And Kelly makes the same egregious comparison to Galaxy Quest, as if there’s some law that the presence of humor demanded it be a parody. Quoth Kelly:
There are too few jokes for it to truly feel like a comedy (despite appearing that way in early promos), but attempts at humor muddy the series’ ambitions as a pure sci-fi adventure.
Indeed there are too few jokes to truly feel like a comedy, which is quite obviously by design because the show isn’t strictly a comedy. And its ambition is just as obviously not to be a pure sci-fi adventure. How did you miss all that, Kelly?
Speaking as a guy who’s actually writing a comic sci-fi series (of novels), I find the attitudes of these critics (except Erik Kain) perplexing. Like they literally can’t understand there’s more than one way to approach humor or science fiction, let alone when combining the two. Especially because normally it’s the other way around: Often it’s the critics who see brilliance in a show that simply never clicks with me. They’ll run rings around the moon to swoon over how wonderful Curb Your Enthusiasm is, a show that approaches humor in very much its own way, yet throw some sci-fi at them and they turn to gibbering morons. These people, supposedly trained to find nuance, are like alien food snobs trying to make sense of a grilled cheese sandwich. They think they know everything there is to know about cheese and bread, but because this isn’t a fondue it baffles them as thoroughly as quantum physics.
Taking that analogy and running with it, basically all of the strong criticism I’ve seen so far boils down to “Not make sense! Why you not fondue?!” Comparing a work to something it never tried to be is ridiculous.
I am an unapologetic sci-fi fan, and I found that in spite of my many, many differences with MacFarlane, he captured the fun feeling of a pre-gritty Star Trek type of show that has been lost for a while. That came from his love for the franchise and especially what it used to be, and as someone who shares that love I felt it hit all the right notes. My wife feels the same way about it.
This is a show that included a bit where a guy was on his way to the bathroom, not because they wanted to go for crude toilet humor (which they didn’t) but because the original Star Trek never once acknowledged that the crew had bodily functions. Throwing that gag into the very first episode was a wink to fellow Trekkies that this show gets it. The parts where it takes itself seriously and wears its heart on its sleeve were the same thing. MacFarlane set out to make a version of Star Trek with all the fun and a little less starch, and at least after one episode I’m prepared to say he succeeded.
Maybe he’ll lose me at some point down the line. Like I said, I don’t trust his humor. But so far I found The Orville surprisingly inoffensive, witty without trying to grab me by the head and say See how witty it is, peasant!, charming without being cloying, and most of all unabashedly fun. Fun is important, and it sometimes gets short shrift on TV these days. Fun was the lifeblood of the ’80s, and of the myriad syndicated shows in the ’90s. So far this show is fun, and I’m in.