Tuesday TV: The Orville

Buddy…level the camera…

I admit to being skeptical when The Orville was announced in 2017. And I was definitely not alone, especially as Seth McFarlane’s light comedy homage to Star Trek: TNG was landing around the same time that CBS introduced us to the prequel series Star Trek: Discovery. I’ll have more in depth to say about Discovery as we get closer to it’s second season premier on January 17th (IT’S AWESOME,) but the juxtaposition of the two shows and their decidedly differing tone has incited a lot of frankly silly nerdfighting over which program is the true heir to Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.

The most problematic yet brilliant element on The Orville is definitely creator and Captain Ed Mercer Seth McFarlane. Ever since his first hit show, Family Guy was actually dragged back from the TV Graveyard by fans demanding more after it’s surprise 2003 cancellation, McFarlane has been a TV hitmaker and controversial lightning rod. His often crude and careless comedy has definitely earned him some well deserved ire from marginalized communities and social justice advocates. His performance as host of the 2013 Academy Awards was marred by his leering rendition of a musical number called “We saw your boobs” directed at the women in the audience who had done topless scenes that year. It was pretty icky.

He’s also a zealous advocate for LGBTQ rights, a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, and a board member for People for the American Way. As executive producer he was instrumental in bringing Cosmos back to the small screen. And despite the many worrying warning signs in his body of work, there’s no evidence so far that he’s gonna turn out to be Keyser Sose on the #metoo front. That’s right guys, “no evidence so far is all the rope we get.” And we’ve collectively barely earned that. All of this is to say that Seth combating multitudes, if his comedy or history spoil the sow for you that’s completely fair. But he has pleasantly surprised this viewer so far.

I think the biggest worry going into The Orville’s first season was that it would be Family Guy in Space. Especially with washed out Captain Ed Mercer as an obvious Larry Stu stand in for Seth himself, it could very well be Captain Brian Griffin humping the leg of every alien he meets. Luckily it seems that Ed Mercer represents a different side of Seth, an earnest and competent commander who is a bit frazzled to be in command of a light comedy starship crew.

I’m Bortus… I’m very intense…

Fox certainly hasn’t spared any expense. The FX and makeup are top notch. The ship is populated by an ambitious mix of classic sci-fi “humanoids with pointy ears,” all the way up to the lecherous and gelatinous Yaphit, voiced by Norm McDonald, who is basically a ball of green goo. The cast is excellent, Adrienne Palicki is a treat as Ed’s second in command and (light comedy remember,) ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson. The ex-wife jokes get a little old, but hopefully they are moving away from them in the second season. The most fascinating member of the crew might be Peter Macon, as Commander Bortus. Bortus is a Moclan, a species which considers all of it’s members to be male. He lives with his husband Klyden, played by Chad Coleman on board The Orville and they have a son named Topa.

Topa was a centerpiece of the third episode of the series “About a Girl,” when it was discovered that he had been born female and it was revealed that while rare, female Moclans were subjected to mandatory reassignment surgery. Klyden and Bortus clash over whether to go through with the surgery as Klyden wishes, while Bortus has been convinced by his human crew mates to leave the child “as is.” This weeks second season episode explored some of the lingering fallout.

“About a Girl” sparked some pretty intense reactions. It came across as a bit ham handed as the show’s first attempt at tackling a serious issue, and a lot of trans and non-binary folks bristled at the implied universal sexual dimorphism in The Orville’s universe. On the other hand,  Jesse Earl at the Advocate notes that while problematic, the episode reveals McFarlane’s ambitious intentions.

For better or worse, this marks Seth MacFarlane’s first attempt at emulating the spirit of the original Star Trek franchise instead of just its aesthetic and tone. Star Trek has always been known for tackling major issues of the day, and it’s clear that MacFarlane wants his show to follow in that vein, while hiding behind an extremely thin veneer of comedy and parody to lure in fans of MacFarlane’s typically irreverent humor brand. 
Reaction to MacFarlane’s attempt has been extremely mixed, with many thinking he tried too hard and others arguing that he didn’t try hard enough. The only thing that most critics agree on is that they didn’t like MacFarlane’s take.

For many of us in the LGBTQ and feminist community, much of MacFarlane’s approach was woefully outdated. Yet we sometimes forget that this episode was not made for those who already know all about intersex and transgender issues.
The episode aired on prime-time television, a world that is still a barren wasteland devoid of any transgender and intersex representation. Many of the people watching these shows are stillnot used to having to look to niche platforms to find their representation. They don’t immerse themselves within LGBTQ culture on a daily basis and still lack basic understanding of what being transgender or intersex even is, let alone the prejudices that those communities face. So to showcase these issues in a heavy-handed way helps to give voice and acknowledgement to what is going on outside of a nonqueer, cisgender person’s worldview.

Jesse Earl, The Advocate, 9/29/2017

I really like Jesse’s take here. The Orville as a whole feels like an attempt by McFarlane to draw the viewers of his animated comedies and films into this other place he also loves. Folks who scoffed at paying CBS to stream Star Trek: Discovery get a lighthearted substitute that still has some meat on it’s bones even if it’s a little undercooked. In fact the structure of the Orville allows it to tackle classic Trek style storytelling better than the season long action drama that Discovery delivers.

One thing I actually find relatable on the Orville is the light comedy/serious storytelling dynamic. A good friend of mine felt that the crews lack of discipline and constant anachronistic joking were too jarring, taking them out of suspension of disbelief. But as a tabletop RPG player that dynamic makes perfect sense. The gamemaster will do his best to put together an interesting and sometimes serious adventure, but the players are still 21st century geeks hopped up on caffeine and whatever. Their characters will have outlandish backgrounds, they will crack wise at inappropriate times and drive the storyteller crazy. But they will also deliver solemn soliloquies, make tough life or death decisions, maybe even sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

I’m not going to judge anyone who is sick of Seth’s style or bothered by his sometimes serious lapses in judgement. We live in the golden age of TV, there has to be a line you make just to have time for it all. But so far I’m glad I’ve made some time for The Orville. I hope it keeps surprising me.