“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?”
Many years after seeing 10 Things I Hate About You, I finally have my answer. Yes.
The Orville totally whelmed me.
The live-action space sci-fi adventure/comedy series premiered Sunday, from series’ writer and co-creator Seth McFarlane. The show is a nod – a huge nod – to the Star Trek universe (sort of by way of Galaxy Quest) with MacFarlane starring as the titular Orville’s new commanding officer Ed Mercer.
The show introduces us to McFarlane’s character just as he returns home to discover his wife Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) in bed with another
man alien. This is accompanied by a blue-alien premature ejaculation joke, because…Seth McFarlane. Mercer’s downward spiral as an officer in Earth’s interstellar fleet, following his divorce from his ex-wife, is capped off by her assignment a year later as his first officer. And away we go!
It’s hard to know, going into a new Seth McFarlane show, whether we will actually get anything new. As a writer, his particular brand of referential and cynical humor has produced greatness, I won’t lie, but it’s rarely unpredictable anymore and even less often is it capable of real emotion or sentiment without spitting on it five minutes later.
And that’s the challenge to The Orville. There’s that feeling of holding your breath and waiting to see how they turn a serious moment on its head to make a pop-culture reference or undermine the seriousness in some dark way. It’s too distracting to focus on what the show is trying to be. Eventually, after letting one’s guard down and settling into The Orville, it seemed that at the heart there’s some potential there. Seth and his bunch have put a lot of effort and thought into creating a world that, from concept to visuals, is a perfect … homage? parody? fanfiction? … of the Star Trek universe. It’s strange though for so much of the series to be played so straight. Outside Seth and his crew, no one else in the show seems to be in on the joke or even part of it. Not the
Federation Union officers, nor the completely forgettable and disappointingly unfunny bad-guy aliens, the Krill.
The Trek tropes don’t end with the ships and uniforms. Each character had me thinking, “Now where have I seen that person before?” From brash pilot Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), Beefy deadpan alien Bortus (Peter Macon), Scrappy, but petite Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) and the android alien Klyden (Chad Coleman) who, one friend commented the other day, “couldn’t possibly sound more like Commander Data!” Eschewing the one-for-one Trek-placements are Penny Johnson Jerald. and J. Lee as the ship’s doctor and … some guy atthe helm, respectively.
None of these are bad things — for a parody. They add instant familiarity to the show, while reminding us that the connection is deliberate. But time and time again, The Orville’s creators have inexplicably played down that fact and asked us to see the show as its own original creation.
In fact, because so much of it feels like a serious take, it makes the humor jarring. In a recent interview executive producer David A. Goodman compares the humor element in The Orville to that of Guardians of the Galaxy. That would be a fair point if the comparison wasn’t so lofty. As my wife commented: it’s like a normal sci-fi show that is occasionally paused in order to be hijacked by Seth McFarlane jokes.
There’s not enough humor to be parody, and too much to be straightforward; it struggles to weave the two elements together. However, there are still things that work. Despite the progress-halting gags that are a staple of his animated shows, The Orville features some quick dialogue that is absent from most McFarlane vehicles. Those parts are fun, and are a place where Palicki thoroughly shines opposite her co-star, as do Grimes and Lee in their as-yet limited interaction. The Orville needs more of those and far fewer cultural references that make no sense to characters 400 years in the future.
There’s also elements of heart to the show, particularly with Palicki. It’s just that The Orville simply struggles and currently fails to find that right balance between the “earnestness” the show-runners seem keen to portray, and the actual moments where it shows up.
We will revisit The Orville later; for now, it’s a very whelming 2.5 redwood seeds out of 5.