Friday, September 8, 2017

TV REVIEW: FOX's 'The Orville'

FOX will debut its original drama series The Orville on Sunday, September 10 at 8/7c. The drama stars Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J. Lee and Mark Jackson.

Read on for my thoughts on the new series after screening its first three episodes.

There is so much weirdness afoot throughout FOX's new hourlong show The Orville. It's never entirely sure of itself. It's a mystery as to what it is trying to be exactly. No one on the show really knows what they are doing. As such, it feels less like a fully formed idea with an original premise and more like elaborate fan fiction that someone somehow spent millions of dollars on. It's easy to understand why FOX picked up this show. They were in demand for content. Seth MacFarlane has been a reliable creator for them in the past. Sure, Family Guy is his only show that is still on the air at FOX. But he's had many hits over the years as well. As such, the executives at FOX are still primed to buy his pitches immediately without demanding a pilot at all. He has the credibility to pull that off at this particular network. Of course, this is probably a show that would have benefited from a traditional pilot development cycle. There are so many problems that could have been worked out at that stage of things. It would at least address them much quicker than what the network may do eventually in the actual season. Of course, it also makes sense why it was a straight-to-series order. It's more cost-effective to do it that way because of the elaborate effects that the show requires. But it's just a blend where extenuating circumstances created this show and the initial vision was lost in the mess.

The Orville essentially aspires to be the Star Trek of decades past. At times, the show is barely even hiding how much it's just ripping off from that series. MacFarlane is just a fan of that type of show and saw a hole in the glut of programming for a more aspirational science fiction story. There definitely is room in Peak TV for a show like The Orville. It's a fun and episodic sci-fi show with an ensemble of characters having misadventures across the galaxy. Again, it's not a reinvention of the wheel. But it's also just a bad case of copying as well. There really isn't much original thought to these opening three episodes to make it seem like an essential show in 2017. It has a throwback feel to it. The way that it tells its stories is structured like things were in decades past. It fades in and out of commercials just like all of the shows from the 1990s. But what's the purpose of doing that in 2017 where audiences are simply used to something different? Again, these differences help the show stand out. But it also just feels like the show copying beat for beat an old Star Trek show without making sure that it's new cast of characters are worth anyone actually investing in over a long period of time.

The running time also creates numerous problems throughout all of the episodes. The Orville is an hourlong show. That may not be what some in the audience are expecting given the way the show was advertised over the summer. But it is an hour for each episode. MacFarlane even commented at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour that he was worried about how FOX was marketing this series. The advertisements made it look like a Star Trek or Galaxy Quest parody where everyone was in on the joke and mining the familiar storytelling for laughs. The humor would be prominent and more akin to Family Guy or American Dad. If the show were a half-hour, then it probably could have upped the focus on the humor and been more successful. But that just wasn't feasible from a financial standpoint. So, the show needed to pivot to an hourlong where the story demands meant it had to take things more seriously. And so, each episode revolves around a big story that compromises the people on the ship in a way where they learn a big lesson in the end. Again, it's such a nostalgia play for simpler times. But the crude humor still remains. There is nothing wrong with crude humor. MacFarlane has been very successful with it. He's been very successful when he does serious things as well - like Cosmos a few years ago. But there's such immense tonal whiplash throughout these episodes that it's hard to really tell you what the precise tone of the show actually is.

All of this is saying nothing about the actual characters or the story. In addition to being the creator, MacFarlane is also the star. He can do some things very well as an actor. He's great in animation and when he is allowed to be incredibly funny and absurd. But as the straight man in a world of craziness, he just falls flat and seems miscast in the role. He wanted to play this part because this show clearly means a lot to him. It was suppose to be his love letter to the shows he grew up watching. Instead, it feels more like a vanity project that is an epic failure. But everything somehow still needs to revolve around his captain of the ship character, Ed Mercer. There is a significant story where his ex-wife who cheated on him, Kelly (played by Adrianne Palicki, who deserves so much better than what Hollywood typically gives her), becomes his first officer. It's a story that is full of bickering and nagging. It gets very uncomfortable very quickly. It's also just formulaic and conventional. It's the type of story seen a million times before. It wasn't pleasant then and it isn't pleasant now. Plus, it also makes no sense why Kelly would want to continue being in this job. There's the undercurrent that she wants to get back together with Ed even though the story makes it pretty clear that he was a terrible husband to her. It's all so random and doesn't seem to make any sense at all when one actually thinks about the character motivations.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is given their initial descriptions early on with episodic spotlights later on seemingly providing more depth. The second episode is all about the young head of security, Alara (Halston Sage) coming into her own on the ship while the third tells a story about aliens from a single gender species starting a family which is so absolutely tone-deaf in its execution. But again, none of it has much purpose or suggests why any of these actors are willing to do this show. This is a terrific cast. Sometimes, they can bring out something interesting in the material they are given. Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes and Peter Macon have the potential to shine but the show is constantly letting them down because of its own identity crisis. That's really the major issue at play here. The Orville ultimately just feels like a show that was rushed into production without a clear set of ideas and goals it wanted to do in its first season. And yet, it's getting a huge marketing push from FOX. It's debuting after two weekends of NFL games. But I just don't see an audience here for this show that couldn't simply wait a few weeks for CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery to come out.