I Can't Stand Seth MacFarlane But I Like The Orville

I've never actually met Seth MacFarlane, so saying I don't like the guy isn't a personal dig. I've just never been a fan of his style of comedy, especially Family Guy (hate it) and the Ted movies (ugh). And yet somehow I'm enjoying the hell out of The Orville, his new live-action Star Trek homage.

All images: Michael Becker/FOX

AU Editor's Note: The Orville hasn't aired on TV in Australia, nor is it on any streaming service just yet. Fingers crossed, though. -- Cam

The Orville, which airs Thursday nights on Fox, is not quite halfway through its inaugural 13-episode season -- but just in case you haven't caught up yet, I'll drop in one of these:

I never got into Family Guy -- its sense of humour feels like punching down a lot of the time, and I find its smug "fuck political correctness!" tone more annoying than humorous. I generally enjoy animation that often pushes the boundaries of good taste (Rick and Morty, Archer, Frisky Dingo, South Park, Mr. Pickles, Moonbeam City), but Family Guy just always felt unnecessarily mean. I didn't outright hate the first Ted movie, which delivered the R-rated ridiculousness you'd expect from a movie about a foul-mouthed living teddy bear; I had a much bigger problem with Ted 2, which decided it needed to be way more sincere and weigh in on civil rights, while still also making "homo" jokes. The combination just didn't work for me.

And, to be fair, I don't think The Orville is a perfect show. Episode three, "About a Girl," aimed to be sincere but got tangled up in its use of gender stereotypes. It's also a little convenient that MacFarlane -- who writes every episode in addition to playing the show's main character, Captain Ed Mercer -- penned himself another role in which he gets to romance Charlize Theron, his co-star in A Million Ways to Die in the West. On The Orville, she guest stars as a seductive time-traveller whose intentions toward Ed are not as genuine as he initially believes. But they do hook up and make Ed's ex-wife and fellow Orville officer, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), noticeably jealous.

Ed and Kelly's relationship can be frustrating -- they have been divorced a year because she cheated on him, a fact that's repeated too often -- and their dynamic is also problematic: Ed's the wounded dude, while Kelly's the bitch whose guilt has inspired her to try and make amends. That said, their complicated backstory is actually less annoying than I feared it would be at first. In fact, it actually makes their love-hate interplay, their frequently cutting banter, and their casually-referenced inside jokes feel more realistic. The show has given some hints that they may reconcile, but I fear that would wreck their unique chemistry, so here's hoping they don't. Compare their relationship to the raunchy exploits of Family Guy's Peter and Lois Griffin, and -- well, there's no comparison. Ed and Kelly might have some major drama in their past, but there's still love and respect between them, and The Orville makes sure we understand that.

Though Kelly and Ed's personal relationship is important to the show, their professional rapport is also crucial -- and it's much smoother sailing in that department (for the most part). Kelly may have been an unfaithful wife, but she's a trustworthy and valuable first officer. Right from episode one, "Old Wounds," The Orville makes sure we know that Ed and Kelly still make a good team. Under fire from the Krill, the show's enemy aliens, she quickly comes up with a plan to weaponize a redwood seed -- saving the ship and ensuring that Ed's crucial first mission as captain of The Orville is a success.

Though Ed and Kelly are the main roles, the rest of the Orville's crew are obviously important, too. I was worried that the ship's petite security chief, Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), would exist only to show off her alien super-strength -- and while that is a recurring joke, we've also seen unexpected layers to her character. Her first time taking charge of the ship, in episode two's "Command Performance," showed that she was able to step up in a time of crisis, and she's also proven to be a loyal friend to Kelly. The generally expressionless Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) anchored the controversial "About a Girl" episode with surprising emotion, as he wrestled with whether or not to keep with the tradition of his species and surgically alter his newborn child from female to male. The heavy-handed subject matter of that episode might've been handled a bit clumsily, but it was a huge step up from the 2010 Family Guy episode about transgenderism, "Quagmire's Dad," which was widely criticised by GLAAD and other groups. With that as a comparison point, "About a Girl" felt downright nuanced.

There are still a few characters that haven't done much beyond provide comic relief -- especially J. Lee's Lt. John LaMarr and Scott Grimes' Lt. Gordon Molloy -- but The Orville is a comedy first and foremost, so that actually makes plenty of sense. Plus, it could be worse. They could be the barely-even-single-joke characters MacFarlane's animated shows rely on. And the comedy on the show is actually funny, which goes against what I always disliked about MacFarlane's writing. Previously, I've taken issue with his love of being offensive just to be offensive, a kind of humour that inevitably sneers at the viewer who's, like, too uptight to find it amusing. Maybe it's the science fiction setting that adds a certain layer of reverence to his scripts, or maybe it's the fact that the show is live-action, but The Orville's humour is often genuinely hilarious, and that includes its many insults, nonsequiturs, and under-the-breath asides.

And unlike on Family Guy, the randomness actually serves a purpose. One of the funniest weird moments came in episode four, "When the Stars Should Appear." After the crew of The Orville happens upon a giant, planet-like starship containing a society that doesn't realise it's drifting in space, they blow everyone's mind by showing them the galaxy overhead for the first time. It's an awe-inducing moment, and the ship's no-nonsense Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Clair Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), marks it with a poignant quote. The scene goes like this:

Dr. Finn: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations a remembrance of the city of God."

Captain Mercer: "Is that... Shakespeare?"

Dr. Finn: "Emerson."

Captain Mercer: "William Byron Emerson... yes, yes."

Dr. Finn: "Ralph Waldo."

Captain Mercer: "Ralph Waldo, yes. Lord... Ralph Waldo Keats David Thoreau, yes."

The moment celebrates the reveal of the stars above, which is the emotional climax of the episode. But it's also a perfect illustration of how Ed is finally settling into his role as captain, acknowledging the appropriateness of Dr. Finn's quote... while also casually displaying his own total lack of knowledge about who said it. It's just an aside between the two characters, but it goes on for just a beat longer than the viewer would expect, which makes it even funnier. The Orville's humour has great timing in general, but this might be my favourite example so far.

The show is also full of pop culture references you would not hear on the real Star Trek -- there are as many jokes about Seinfeld and Friends, having to play as the thimble in Monopoly, and Destiny's Child as there is are great jokes poking fun at its genre, as when Ed interrupts a Krill leader's beamed-in threats to ask the alien to scoot over so he's more centered on the transmission screen.

Humour aside, the scripts aren't flawless, as I mentioned, and neither are they especially original. Rick and Morty's take on "humans in an alien zoo" happened to air the exact same night as the Orville episode that did the same -- and the Adult Swim show presented a far more clever take using a lot less screen time (with an escape plan that was way better than The Orville's, which somehow involved reality TV). But without the freedom of animation, the show musters acceptable special effects on what's certainly not a Star Trek: Discovery budget. The characters are surprisingly engaging (and surprising, period, as when Liam Neeson, another of MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West co-stars, lent his gravitas for a cameo in episode four). If Family Guy and Ted rubbed you the wrong way -- too crass, too shrill, too pleased with themselves, too many off-colour jokes -- consider The Orville to be a new entry point into MacFarlane's sense of humour. He's more versatile than I've given him credit for in the past, and way funnier too.


Comments

    This show is star trek meets Futurama in real life

      Works for me, I like the show. At least I like it better than the new Star Trek so far, anyway.

        I think of Orville as a Star Trek knockoff but with a bit more humour. It's *not* a comedy with a bit of sci-fi. Not what I expected when they first announced it, thought it'd be mostly jokes but in space, but it actually feels a lot like the Star Trek TV show.

        As for MacFarlane, I actually quite like Family Guy and his sense of humour. But maybe that's because I believe political correctness has gone too far these days. I'm all for equal rights and respecting others, but when you can't tell a joke it's gone too far. Case in point the Ted 2 "homo" jokes. It's possible to believe in equal rights and that it's ok for people to be gay but still make (or laugh at) a gay joke. Just like it's possible to joke that red heads have no souls, or blonds are dumb or Trump's a lunatic. Considering the characters making the jokes were hetero males in private it was a joke more at Wahlberg's character's expense than gay people's expense.

        I actually though the fact Kelly cheated on Ed keeps getting brought up is not surprising. In the real world it happens, and it happens a lot. Over time people bring it up less and less. And given enough time (might take decades) people can accept and even laugh about something like that. But in the first couple years... it's going to come up because it's still in the forefront of their minds.

        I thought they've been handling that part of the show pretty well. The arc from hate to grudging acceptance to less grudging acceptance was swift but done well. I'm not sure whether getting them back together in the show would be good or bad (for the show I mean). I do think that there is only so long their bickering can remain entertaining. Although sitcoms have managed to drag that joke out for multiple seasons, so maybe they'll try to do the same.

          I tend to think of MacFarlane in a similar vein to Robin Williams, in that he's always on, as most comic genii are. Time will be his judge.

            Yeah, and the thing is sometimes time isn't favorable but it's not that the person wasn't funny. It's just that broader social attitudes have changed. Just look at the 50s and 60s shows where women were basically servants and a lot of the jokes were based on a woman *gasp* doing something rebellious.

            I wonder how many people blast MacFarlane but don't realise just how offensive a lot of good comics actually were (Eddie Murphy, Billy Connelly, etc)?

            Anyway, he's got to be doing something right since so many people obviously do like his shows (otherwise they'd be long gone).

              Listen to Derek and Clive for some of the funniest, and most offensive, comedy.

                Thanks for the tip, I'll check them out. I'd also suggest Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle for anyone who hasn't heard them (and isn't easily offended).

                Part of the reason I mentioned Murphy and Connolly was they're seen as fairly family friendly now. Very "Disney" but people (especially younguns) probably never heard/saw their early standup.

                  Oh wow, yeah Derek & Clive are a perfect example. More actors that became fairly family friendly later in their careers.

    Well, I have a day off up here in Darwin so Popcorn Time it is, I guess, since there’s no other way for me to watch it...

    Seth and the family guy crew really are repellent, I chatted with a lady in LA who's had a bad experience with them.

    Nobody thinks MacFarlane is funnier than Seth himself. guy loves himself.

    I’ve never seen him in anything else, but he seems ok.

    I’m actually enjoying this show more than Star Trek Discovery.

    The guys funny as ! Love his humour and he is actually very intelligent. He was behind cosmos too . He is a bloody legend ! And this show is a total
    Win !

    Watched the pilot and while I could see the potential the jokes fell flat for me. personally I think I would of liked it more if it was played straight.

    If I had the power to write scripts that meant I could repeatedly make out with Charlize, I’d be doing just that.

    I still can't get over the fact it airs in New Zealand on TVNZ yet still not a peep for a network here

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