After finishing the immensely satisfying Netflex-released Russian Doll, I was in need of something… dumber. As I have often dubbed it: “Second Screen Viewable”— a show that doesn’t demand my attention so much as exists wonderfully living on my second monitor while I draw. Feeling that I needed to take advantage of all my existing subscription services, I bounced back to Hulu to find myself lighter fare. And wouldn’t you know it? Seth McFarlane’s homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation was queued up on the main page… beckoning me with promises (I’d figured) of giant chicken fights in space.
Not only was I wrong, I was delightfully wrong. The Orville, now a season and a half deep, is a low-key gem of a series.
Of the many positive notes I want to denote (noting how noteworthy said denoting is…) would be Seth McFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer. Simply put, my expectations for our series center was dreadfully low prior to the pilot. McFarlane, based on his voice acting chops is fully capable of amazing range. But then he did try to make an update on Blazing Saddles with his western riff and frankly I’m still mad at him for even thinking about it. In spite of all signs that would lead you to think otherwise though. Ed Mercer is cool, calm, diplomatic, trusting of his crew, and truly a straight man to the funnier things happening aboard his vessel. I think quickly to his introduction to his motley crew— and how matter-of-fact he was in meeting each member with positivity and optimism. Even when presented with his likely too young to be an officer, but she has a super-power security chief, Mercer can only stand to welcome her and see a piece to a larger puzzle he’ll shimmy in later. It’s Picard, without any earned gravitas. And I love it.
Captain aside, the show’s bridge crew is strong — if too quickly assigned their Trekkie tropes. It’s clear from the jump how we have our cocky pilot, our overly masculine alien, our emotionless android, and a smattering of intelligent women just trying to make it in a man’s universe. But again, where I expected the show to lean in heavily to these keystones of sci-fi (and/or fart jokes), McFarlane and his writer’s room actually take pause to add modern nuances and flairs to each of those aforementioned archetypes.
The Worf-esque Bortis (a personal favorite of mine) comes from a very Klingon-esque race of loud, obnoxious heavily prosthetic-and-makeup’ed men. The twist? Their race is all men, making all them gay. That in an of itself is fairly novel. But a season and a half in, and Bortus and the Mocklan race are far deeper than a few gay gags. Several times in fact, The Orville has asked hard questions about sexuality and biological imperatives through the lens of this all Y-Chromosomed alien race. To balance it? McFarlane also doesn’t skimp on the laughs. Take for example my personal favorite cold open / C plot as Bortus is convinced he needs to grow a mustache. Seriously, kiddos. Chortle-worthy.
The Orville isn’t perfect, of course. A few times gags fall below flat — like the ship’s doctor having sex with a gelatinous blob. And a few times, the show topics are lifted from other series… and not elevated or even presented differently-enough to garner need for episode itself. My go-to case in point is their futuristic take on social media as public policy. It was done better on Black Mirror, and the watered-down mystery of how will the smooth-talking crew member not be murdered was a mystery to literally no-one. Pair this with a bit of inconsistency specifically with that same crew member, and we see a show still earning it’s stars and bars one piece at a time.
Ultimately, The Orville is an infinitely watchable homage to loftier shows. It sneaks in the well-earned depth with a deft hand, while tossing in equally-lol-worthy jokes. The show’s budget is high enough that all space battles and aliens are of Trek caliber. And the ensemble on the bridge have all been given enough time to breathe and shake off their rusty tropes for better stories that give each of them more to do that the casting call sheet listed off. If you’re not catching it yet, consider this my invitation to do so. Hulu will catch you up right-quickly, and when you’re done? Find a free trial to CBS’s waste-of-a-streaming-service to catch the new Trek series and Twilight Zone. At least… that’s my plan.