Review – The Orville

I want to like The Orville.

There are positives. For example, I think Seth MacFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer is likable as our Every-person, our guide to this world. The relationship with his first officer, Commander Kelly Grayson (played by Adrianne Lee Palicki) is an interesting one, even if the evenness of MacFarlane’s reactions to her could be better (or more enlightened): his character alternates between making digs at her expense and saying he is over her affair. Making the main female character the ‘unfaithful’ cause of the end of their marriage might also be considered a bit tired and clichéd: one could hope for a fresh take, a more progressive portrayal. However, this may be too much to ask of McFarlane, whose history with these issues is not exactly stellar (e.g., the controversy surrounding his sexist bit when hosting the Oscars; see Amy Davidson Sorkin’s New Yorker article on his hosting, “Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night”.) But there may be some growth here—or at least some complex mix (e.g., the news about MacFarlane’s joke at Harvey Weinstein’s expense). But, as far as the depiction in The Orville goes, there is also the redeeming factor of Palicki’s performance, which is handled with intelligence and aplomb by the actor.

Furthermore, most of the supporting cast is excellent. In particular, Penny Johnson Jeraldas, as Dr. Claire Finn, is wonderful—a combination of authority, power, and humor. Mark Jackson, as Isaac, stands out, which is a feat, given Jackson doesn’t have the usual modes of expression at an actor’s disposal; his comic timing and vocal work are solid and Data-like. Peter Macon, as Lt. Cmdr. Bortus, and J. Lee, as Lt. John LaMarr, also deserve highlighting.

There are, of course, many shortcomings as well. As just one example, Halston Sage’s character, Lt. Alara Kitan, doesn’t have the consistency I would like to see. I’m unsure what the exact issue is here—and this could certainly just be my failing as a viewer. The character when first introduced appears to have been written as a young and inexperienced but (for the most part) in control security officer. However, the character vacillates between this portrayal and a kind of “in-growing-pains-teenager” (particularly in her main episode feature, “Command Performance,” where she takes over the bridge while the captain and first officer are imprisoned in a zoo). Of course, allowing for growth and complexity in a character is certainly more than welcome. But, to my untrained eye, either the writing doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp on who the character is supposed to be or maybe the actor doesn’t. Also, episode 4, “If the Stars Should Appear,” is fairly dismissive of religion in an unthoughtful way. This is really no surprise given MacFarlane’s brand of atheism, but, for my taste (an agnostic), it just doesn’t engage deeply with the arguments—and, to be fair, this is hard to do in an hour program. But other shows have done more: one need only look to the show’s direct influence, Star Trek, to see this done with more nuance.

The tone doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother some other critics. I think it has gotten slack on this front primarily because it suffers from expectations—namely, that the show should be Family Guy in space. I don’t watch Family Guy, and have only seen snippets of the show—hence, I’m probably not the greatest assessor of its merits—so, I don’t miss any elements from that show not being present here. I happen to enjoy the mix of seriousness and comedy, even if it doesn’t hit the comedic highs of a Galaxy Quest. It adds some sense of a down-to-earth relatability to the show. And I also want a sci-fi show that deals with complicated issues. (And, as a brief aside, I want my Trek without having to pay an extra service fee! So, I was glad the show was willing to take on issues that other shows won’t or can’t).

As far as depth and seriousness goes, there is much for the show to mine. But it often does so in unconvincing or unsympathetic ways: for example, the episode “About a Girl,” where Bortus and Klyden (two married characters of an all-male race) deal with the birth of a daughter and a debated forced “sex change.” This is a term GLAAD specifically asks the media to avoid, but it is used by the doctor in this episode. From GLAAD:

Transition

Altering one’s birth sex is not a one-step procedure; it is a complex process that occurs over a long period of time. Transition can include some or all of the following personal, medical, and legal steps: telling one’s family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) one or more types of surgery. The exact steps involved in transition vary from person to person. Avoid the phrase “sex change”.

Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS)

Also called Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS). Refers to doctor-supervised surgical interventions, and is only one small part of transition (see transition above). Avoid the phrase “sex change operation.” Do not refer to someone as being “pre-op” or “post-op.” Not all transgender people choose to, or can afford to, undergo medical surgeries. Journalists should avoid overemphasizing the role of surgeries in the transition process. 

(https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender)

This episode does show the potential to deal with complicated, modern issues in a sci-fi format. The show is trying, and that is something. But it also traffics in confusion. The show does better when it handles some of these complications in a more personal way (such as when Klyden reveals he was forcibly re-assigned—and argues for his daughter to undergo the procedure as well). But other parts of the episode just lack depth and understanding (e.g., lack of clarity on the terms sex and gender, and just a general lack of nuance on the issues).

For some accessible examples dealing with the nuances of these matters, see Judith Butler:

[Her positions on these issues are viewed as controversial by some. So, one may want to go here to read a full interview in The TransAdvocate, where she clarifies what she claims are erroneous views attributed to her]

Or Janet Mock:

One might also want to read Caroline Framke’s take-down of the show in general and Framke’s take-down of this episode in particular.

Unlike some critics, however, I do think there is a framework on which to build a good show. The show gives hints of the program it could be. And there have been suggestions on how this might be done. I think the show needs to be given time to develop and find its legs.

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