Seth MacFarlane’s science-fiction comedy comes frustratingly close to being a show appropriate for families…but ultimately falls short.
At the beginning of the first episode of Fox’s new science-fiction comedy The Orville, an admiral asks Captain Ed Mercer if he is up to the task of commanding a starship. Mercer replies, “Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to serve on an exploratory vessel. For you to put me in the captain’s chair – Yes! I’m ready!”
Captain Mercer is played by Seth MacFarlane – who is also The Orville’s creator, head writer, and executive producer. Given the obvious passion he has for the program, it is clear that the words above are not merely the feelings of a character he is playing; they are the feelings of Seth MacFarlane himself.
Seth MacFarlane is infamous for the crass, and often outright disgusting, content of his long-running Sunday-night animated Fox programs Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show. The Parents Television Council has justly criticized MacFarlane for his programs’ content, particularly the fact that they air in prime time (and now in syndication), where their sexualized, profane, violent, racist, and crude toilet humor has been seen by millions upon millions of children for the better part of the last 20 years.
But that is not all there is to Seth MacFarlane. In recent years, MacFarlane has demonstrated a wider range of interests, and a broad range of talents. He has produced several musical albums, on which he has covered songs by Frank Sinatra and other favorites. He has had acting roles in several films, such as Logan Lucky. Most notably, he produced, and through his influence arranged for the airing of, the 2011 science documentary series Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey.
In addition to ‘60s pop music and hard science, another of MacFarlane’s passions has been science-fiction. Even while mocking it, his Family Guy parody of the Star Wars trilogy, Something Something Something Dark Side, was remarkably affectionate; and MacFarlane even persuaded Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard himself, actor Patrick Stewart, to voice the character of overbearing boss Avery Bullock on American Dad! With his achievements in music and acting, the huge fortune his work has amassed (both for himself and for Fox), and the credibility he has with the network, MacFarlane essentially decided to make another of his childhood dreams come true, and has actually become captain of a starship on his own science-fiction TV series.
But if The Orville is a vanity project for Seth MacFarlane, it is a remarkably well-produced and high-quality one. The special effects are top-notch, easily the equal or superior of any before seen on the small screen. The actors – among them Agents of SHIELD’s Adrienne Palicki, ER’s Scott Grimes, and Penny Johnson Jerald (Kasidy Yates on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) – are equally excellent; and as Captain Mercer, MacFarlane is pretty good himself, bringing an amusing mix of sincerity, authority, and passive-aggressiveness to his role. The makeup on the various alien characters, the set design, even the uniforms are all visual delights. And The Orville’s writer’s room is certainly not lacking in science-fiction credibility; among the show’s writers is Brannon Braga, writer and producer on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, several Star Trek movies, and the science-fiction television programs Threshold and Terra Nova. The sci-fi savvy viewer can have a lot of fun tracing the show’s influences to their Star Trek originals: Bortas is Worf; Isaac is Data; Dr. Finn is a combination of Beverly Crusher and Guinan; and the plot of episode two, “Command Performance,” is essentially that of the very first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage.”
But the greatest of The Orville’s homages to Star Trek is the show’s light-hearted, optimistic tone. This was entirely deliberate; in a recent interview, Seth MacFarlane stated, “I miss the aspirational place Star Trek used to occupy. I miss the optimism. I’m tired of being told everything is going to be grim and dystopian…I miss the hopeful side of science fiction.”
Laudable though MacFarlane’s sentiments are, and as close as The Orville comes to achieving its goal, sadly, it just falls short. And it is precisely because The Orville is so excellent in so other many ways that the show disappoints in its insistence on using crass humor, which makes the show inappropriate for families. For example:
- Ed walks into his apartment and hears his wife giggling in the bedroom. He opens the door to find his wife in bed with an alien, who squirts blue liquid out of his forehead.
- Mercer suggests his friend Gordon as his ship’s helmsman.
Admiral Halsey: “Didn’t he once draw a penis on the viewing screen?”
Mercer: “He’s drawn a lot of penises on a lot of things.”
- Gordon: “I let my cousin shoot a porno in the back of a shuttle in exchange for some pills.”
- Dr. Finn states that she joined the crew because Ed may need her help.
Mercer: “You implied that you don’t think I have the balls to do this job.”
Dr. Finn: “Well, I am your doctor, sir, and if your balls are under par I’ll know.”
- Lieutenant Malloy: “This mission’s gonna suck.”
Lieutenant Malloy: “Yeah. Suck. You know, like ass. Balls.”
- Kelly wants to know what Ed’s mother said about her after their divorce.
Ed: “She once called you a bitch 46 times at one sitting….You let a blue alien bone you while your husband’s at work.”
- Kelly states that she and Ed could have worked things out. Ed disagrees.
Ed: “You’re high.”
Kelly: “Since we’re seeing your mother, not a bad idea.” [goes to food replicator] “One cannibis edible.” [A pot brownie appears.]
- Alara orders Gordon to abandon the search for Ed and Kelly.
Alara: “I’m the Acting Captain. That’s an order.”
Gordon: “You can shove it up your ass!”
To be fair, The Orville is not Family Guy in space. With the exception of Cosmos, it’s the cleanest program Seth MacFarlane has ever made; but it is still just that bit too crude and explicit for comfortable viewing by families. It’s not that the humor on The Orville is so terribly raunchy; it’s that it’s so unnecessary. The raunchy humor directly works against what the rest of The Orville is trying to do, by taking the viewer out of the otherwise compelling sci-fi scenario the program has set up. The viewer is involved in what will happen to Bortas’ daughter, or the ship’s standoff against a Krill vessel — and suddenly, there’s a remark about how Bortas’ species only urinates once a year, or Gordon says something “sucks ass” — and instantly, the viewer is aware that he or she is watching a TV show.
There’s a reason that Star Trek: the Next Generation and other sci-fi shows don’t use toilet humor: it’s that such humor is too crass and mundane (too “earthy,” if you’ll pardon the pun) for a program about aspiration, alien worlds, and outer space. Some of The Orville‘s slightly satirical conceits actually serve in a positive way to gently puncture the pomposity that often crept into the Star Trek franchise. A divorced couple having to work together, or an apathetic crewman more concerned with being allowed to drink soda on duty than on the thrills of exploring deep space – such mundane concerns and attitudes were never seen in “real” Star Trek; and on The Orville, they serve as an endearingly genuine way of making the characters more relatable and human than the oh-so-perfect crews on “real” Star Trek ever were. But toilet humor and openly vulgar speech is a bit too “down-to-earth” and shocking, and has the effect of upending the “optimistic” and “hopeful” tone the rest of the show is trying to achieve. Unlike MacFarlane’s other shows, on The Orville, the raunchy humor feels oddly obtrusive and off-kilter, and works against the clean, happy, futuristic vibe the show effortlessly establishes…when its characters are not talking about their genitals.
It’s as though there’s something self-sabotaging in Seth MacFarlane; some part of him that simply will not let him permanently escape his past as the fart-rape-and-child-molester-joke guy. However classy and high-quality the project, somehow MacFarlane always has to “go there.” He’s selected to host the Academy Awards, and turns in a creditable job as humorist and singer – but then feels it necessary to make a sexual remark about a nine year-old actress, and sings “We Saw Your Boobs” to some of Hollywood’s most esteemed actresses. He can make a touching movie about a lonely little boy whose teddy bear comes to life – but devotes most of the picture to the bear drinking, smoking pot, and having sex with prostitutes. And he creates and produces The Orville, as visually stunning and exciting a sci-fi adventure as any to ever grace the small screen – only to cram in scenes of dogs licking their genitals (and characters blatantly pointing out, “Did you see that dog licking it’s balls?”, just in case a lucky viewer happened to have missed it.)
As author of columns for the Parents Television Council, this writer rarely employs the first person, as it seems inappropriate to do so when representing an organization (even in an article with a byline); but I am going to do so now.
I have followed Seth MacFarlane’s personal journey with great interest. MacFarlane started Family Guy when he was 23. In a month or so, MacFarlane will turn 44. Twenty years is a long time to be tied to one project. How many of us would like to be known solely or primarily for something we did when we were 23? I wouldn’t. So it’s no wonder MacFarlane has made many efforts to branch out into other things. And (I speak from experience) by the time one enters one’s forties, one begins to take stock of one’s life, and ask: “Is this all I am? Is this all I’ve achieved? Isn’t there more?” And one begins to start thinking about one’s personal legacy. Undoubtedly, Seth MacFarlane wants to know that he has left more of value to the world than twenty years’ worth of raunchy cartoons. Thus, Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey; thus, his establishment and funding of the Carl Sagan Archive; and thus, in another way, The Orville.
I found it very difficult to write this review. I wanted to like The Orville. Seth MacFarlane and I are near-contemporaries in age; I grew up watching classic Star Trek, the Star Wars movies, and the other science-fiction of the 1970s and ‘80s, just as he did. I love science-fiction, just as he does. And I agree completely with MacFarlane’s assessment quoted above, about the direction of science-fiction today as being uniformly dark and dystopian, and how negative an influence that is on our culture.
Not the least offender in this regard is the actual Star Trek franchise, whose latest iteration, the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery, appears to be painted solely in a palette of black-blacker-blackest. Discovery is the first program in Star Trek history to be rated TV-MA. “No Kids Allowed” is a sorry epitaph for Star Trek, a franchise which drew so many young people to science-fiction in the first place.
Most critics have not been kind to The Orville. Many savaged it, but for the exact opposite reason that I criticized it. Accustomed to MacFarlane’s previous output (and unwilling to open their minds to the possibility that he might be capable of something different), these critics didn’t think The Orville was raunchy enough. They didn’t think the show’s mild, observational humor (like a captain whose ex-wife is also his first officer, and their bickering in the midst of their missions) was sufficiently outrageous. I believe such critics completely missed what MacFarlane was trying to do. One who didn’t was Forbes’ Eric Kain, who noted:
MacFarlane is making his own version of the original Star Trek, and he is a new Captain Kirk. All the optimism and sincerity and lightheartedness of that show is here, and in many ways it’s kind of wonderful…I love that someone is actually trying to make a Star Trek show that isn’t just filled with explosions, space battles and gritty action. It’s fun and kind of sweet and I’m happy it’s a thing, however weird and unexpected it might be.
Kain’s analysis is astute. While The Orville may have begun as Seth MacFarlane’s wish fulfillment, MacFarlane is also exactly right about the need for science-fiction that uplifts, that teaches viewers to aspire, and that tells young viewers, “The universe is full of wonder, adventure, and things to explore – whether in fictional stories you read or create yourself, or in science or the arts, where where you can make discoveries or creations that can improve the world.” This is the kind of science-fiction young viewers need today; and in large part, The Orville delivers.
While watching the show at the Paley Center, a fellow PTC staffer told me that The Orville gave him the same excited feeling he had when he was watching a sci-fi adventure as a child. And honestly, I had glimmerings of the same feelings myself. Also at Paley, MacFarlane noted that, in an upcoming episode, The Orville was going to discuss gay marriage and transgenderism. While not every audience member will agree with the show’s perspective on these issues, commenting on social trends is also a traditional part of Star Trek, and speculative fiction generally. At least it’s more thought-provoking than the gloom-and-doom, blow-something-up mentality that rules so much of science-fiction today.
But I have one other reason for my disappointment. After so many years of criticizing the content on his shows, I wanted to be able to unreservedly recommend a program by Seth MacFarlane. Most of all, I wanted to be able to recommend this series for children. In so many ways, The Orville is just like the science-fiction MacFarlane (and I) grew up watching: positive, optimistic, with admirable characters, exciting adventures, and a message that the future is something to look forward to, not to fear.
So much of it is so good; but there’s just that little bit of humor that pushes parents and kids away. I wanted to recommend The Orville for families and children; but in all good conscience, I can’t. As has been made clear, in every other way The Orville is a delightful show, which would’ve been a perfect vehicle for introducing children to the bright, optimistic future MacFarlane cherishes. There is absolutely no reason The Orville couldn’t have been rated TV-PG, instead of TV-14 DLSV…no reason, save Seth MacFarlane’s inability to get out of his own way.
Some day, Seth MacFarlane may finally find the means to cast off his attachment to crass, frat-boy humor for good; to fully embrace his optimism and love of science-fiction; and to let his own better self shine through, so that all may benefit. Given MacFarlane’s talent, it’s a day well worth waiting for…but as The Orville sadly shows, it hasn’t arrived just yet.
The Orville premieres in its regularly-scheduled timeslot on Thursday, September 28 at 9:00 p.m. ET on Fox.