Friday, December 08, 2017

COLUMN: The Orville

I'm confused.

As part of my public service as your humble columnist and purveyor of all things pop culture, I've been checking out this fall's new TV offerings. (Because it's my JOB, and not in any way because I have no life and prefer to live vicariously through fictional television characters.)

I've seen some new shows that are fantastic. I've seen some that are awful. But there's one new show that just leaves me with a huge question mark every week, because I'm just not quite sure WHAT to think about it. Have you seen "The Orville" yet?

When I first heard that Seth MacFarlane would be helming a "Star Trek"-esque sci-fi show this fall, I was intrigued. I've long been an almost-fan of MacFarlane's work. I'm just not sure if he's a genius or the most annoying guy in Hollywood.

Take "Family Guy," for instance. MacFarlane's long-running animated series represents both the best and worst that modern TV has to offer. On one hand, it's a deliciously delinquent rule-breaker that pushes the envelope of good taste with decadent glee. But tasteless humor works best if you're using it subversively to skewer society (see: South Park, Rick & Morty.) If I have to sit through another extended sequence of Peter Griffin fighting a giant chicken, it might be the last straw for me and "Family Guy."

MacFarlane's forays into film have been equally iffy. "Ted" had some funny bits, but "Ted 2" was a disaster. Critics and fans alike turned away from "A Million Ways to Die in the West," but I went into that film expecting stupidity and ended up laughing a LOT.

That's why "The Orville" intrigued me. I'm a long-standing nerd, which means I'm required to love sci-fi stuff, right? But sometimes sci-fi drives me up a wall because it takes itself WAY too seriously. Did Captain Kirk ever crack a joke? Have Mulder and Scully ever cut loose once in their lives? Maybe letting MacFarlane lampoon "Star Trek" would be refreshing.

So I've been watching. And sure enough, the pilot started with some solid comedy and a cast of characters rife for spoofing: A captain whose stellar career was derailed by his failed marriage. A no-nonsense doctor. A skirt-chasing helmsman. A brutish Klingon-esque alien. A cute blonde security officer with superhuman strength. And, of course, a robot who struggles to understand human emotion. Then the first officer shows up -- and it's the captain's ex-wife! Ho, ho, ho. It's every bad Trek stereotype rife for parody.

I was eagerly anticipating "The Orville" to ham-handedly skewer "Star Trek." Instead, though, The Orville pretty much IS "Star Trek." Every episode starts with a few edgy laughs, then suddenly it becomes earnest and serious -- or as serious as you can take a low-budget space adventure. Like the infinite Treks before it, "The Orville" is little more than a weekly morality play, usually involving the ship happening upon some dytopian society that warns us how easily our own world could run amok.

In one episode, they visit a planet where all legal rulings are decided by citizens up-or-downvoting on what looks to be Space Reddit. I think it's supposed to show us the dangers of overusing social media. All it made me do was go on Facebook and talk about how much I hated it.

The show takes itself so seriously that when the jokes DO come, they're jarring and incredibly out-of-place. Imagine ANY random episode of "Star Trek," but have Kirk and Spock drop flatulence jokes every fifteen minutes and you'll be close to what "The Orville" has to offer. The plotlines are thin and campy and the "lessons learned" are so heavy-handed it feels less like sci-fi and more like an extra-terrestrial Afterschool Special.

It's as if the show doesn't know what it wants to be. Enough people have watched to secure a second season, so that's good for MacFarlane. Maybe he can use the down time to iron out the awkwardness a little. If he really wants "The Orville" to be the new "Star Trek," though, can I offer a few suggestions?

(1) Get the nerds involved. Geeks aren't going to be impressed by thinly veiled morality plays. I vote for a little less fiction and a little more science. How are your spaceships even powered? For all I know, they run on magic. I don't even follow Star Trek, but every geek knows their starships need dilithium crystals to activate their warp drives. Nerd it up a little, Seth.

(2) Give us a cool weapon. Trek had phasers. Star Wars had light sabers. "The Orville" has plastic looking guns that stun people. Not impressed.

(3) Diversify. You're never going to win the hearts of geeks without tie-ins to video games, action figures, comic books, and role-playing adventures. Peddle your wares and go full Comic-Con.

Make up your mind, Seth. Are you going for campiness? Homage? Sincerity? Satire? Seriousness? You can't be ALL things to ALL people, especially since most of those people are watching "Scandal" or Thursday Night Football instead. Maybe I shouldn't remind him of that. The crew of "The Orville" might soon be snacking on wine and popcorn while showing us the dangers of getting concussions from interstellar contact sports.

No comments: