The Orville

4 out of 5

Created by: Seth MacFarlane

covers season 1 and 2

I know I made the same mistake that many made when first starting to watch The Orville upon its premiere: I assumed it was a comedy. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy was the creator, after all, and there he was in the spaceship Orville’s captain’s chair – leading a crew on an exploration-style “trek” as on a similar show, encouraging a notion of this being a parody of sorts – and there are jokes, and a blobby alien voiced by Norm MacDonald, and other clear hallmarks of the genre, ready-made for some yuks.

The jokes… were not so funny. The plots… predictable. After a couple of episodes, I started hating the series for seemingly not doing anything new, or trying hard enough to meet my expectations, and gave up watching soon after.

Smarter viewers keyed into the reality, though: The Orville was not a comedy. It was (is!) a legitimate science fiction series, with a comic dusting. And it’s probably the best Star Trek-molded series we’ve had in some time – certainly surpassing Discovery and Picard – as it uses its rather generic setups to push things in very thoughtful, daring, and creative directions, as sci-fi should, and leverages its light-hearted tone to get more interesting and unique character work out of its episodes than most ensemble shows, regardless of genre, tend to be able to.

I do think there’s still a slight learning curve to this, as the surface level of the show is dad jokey, and occasionally seems like it’s just lazily checking timely topics off – here’s an episode about gender involving the all-male Moclan race; here’s an episode about AI involving the synthetic Krylons – but in the former case, watching The Orville as a drama first, comedy second, makes the dad humor tolerable because it matches the characters (and then, as you start to like those characters, the jokes become funnier…), and in the latter case, the templating and topical topics really earn their ways to surprisingly open-ended conclusions and conversations; the show does not take the easy way out, but also never puts on a grimdark face when exploring the greys between the black and whites.

Toward the end of the second season, by when we’ve had some incredibly gripping storylines flutter through, the mostly episodic nature of the show starts to feel a little off (like there should be some more carryover with how events affect the crew), but by keeping things to a trim 13 episodes per season, it means there are no filler episodes, so this is much easier to excuse, and just enjoy a full cast of great actors and consistently well written episodes.

The Orville comes across as one of the most unassuming shows I’ve watched in quite some time, making it hard to assess in the flashier world of modern TV. But taking it on its own terms – instead of, say, making assumptions about it beforehand – soon means you’ll find a new addiction.