Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Orville

One of the things I've had in mind to write about is The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's live-action science fiction show on Fox. I've had this in mind because the show has been a topic of lively and evolving debate in a small circle that consists of me, Ilse, Whispers, and Databoy. I've watched every episode of the show that has broadcast thus far, and I think I've discussed every episode with Ilse and Whispers (Databoy has an interesting spot in the pantheon of opinions about which I give a shit).

So let's start here: I'd give just about any Seth MacFarlane-involved product a shot. We're long-time Family Guy devotees. We liked the Ted movies. I could watch A Million Ways To Die in the West a hundred times over the rest of my life and like it every time, although that probably has more to do with Jamie Foxx's cameo, Neil Patrick Harris' perfect villainy and film-stealing delivery of "If You've Only Got a Moustache", and Charlize Theron sticking a daisy in Liam Neeson's asscrack, as it does with anything MacFarlane-related. We'll even get around to watching Sing one of these days. I think MacFarlane is a funny guy and his productive energy is pretty amazing. While I think he's a better writer/creator and voice actor than live-action actor, I think that's trivial in the context of his talents as an entertainer and a creative.

All of which is why I'm dithering about getting around to bitching about The Orville, and the dithering and exposition ain't done yet, so chillax. Or don't.

The Orville is both an homage and a parody. It's a love letter to Gene Roddenberry; the tone and values are decidedly Trekian, the design and look are unmistakably TNG, MacFarlane has enlisted some old Star Trek hands to help out, and the plot cribs are predominantly TOS, with some TNG tossed in. The characters are essentially Star Trek franchise archetypes remixed (with some distracting exceptions that I'll get to in the bitching portion of our program). The look of the thing is beautiful, when they're doing interiors--like every other show and film, it's amazing how much location sets do not in any way resemble Southern California, to steal a joke from Austin Powers. The effects aren't shabby, and the production seems pretty tight. They've had some kickass episode directors--Jon Favreau, Robert Duncan MacNeil, Brannon Braga, James L. Conway, and Jonathan Frakes. That's right, that Jonathan Frakes. No matter how pissed off I end up at this show, they fucking got Frakes on board, and that is a castle I will not assault. This is a serious effort here, the homage comes from pure fanboy love, and there is no faulting the cast's and crew's passion and enthusiasm for this.

The parody is what you'd expect from MacFarlane. Some of it's pretty lowbrow, some of it's wickedly funny, and a small portion is absolutely devastating. The humor is episodic--the effort is pretty clearly to leaven the homage with humor. There's nothing inherently wrong with that intent. It turns out it's harder to execute than you might think.

So before I open up, I have to say this: I've read some (but by no means all) of MacFarlane's output--interviews, tweets, various other media posts--on what he intends here, on what he's trying to accomplish. His intentions are perfectly fine to outright good. Hell, I'd even say they're close to pure. It's abundantly possible--likely, even--that I'm missing the boat on some of what he's trying to do. I'm not a trained critic, I'm not a trained television/drama/story guy. On the other hand, I'm also not a dumbass, I am reasonably well-educated in literature and narrativium. I understand the basics of telling a story. I'm trying to say that I welcome debate on this critique, if you care. But I think the problems are pretty fundamental and structural.

So here's the primary and insurmountable problem: I can't take it seriously. By this, I mean that the show doesn't get me to suspend disbelief, which everyone knows is an essential element of storytelling.

Let me clarify. I know it's science fiction. At an intellectual level, it's semi-stupid to suspend disbelief, and the whole connection has to be emotional. But the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises had no trouble clearing this hurdle. Yes, I take Star Trek seriously. This cannot possibly be a shock to you. What's my name, what's my motherfucking name?

I know it's parody, and here's the killer: Ted, a pair of movies about a gorram bear that talks (in a facking Boston accent, no less) had no trouble getting me to clear this hurdle, Million Ways had no trouble, and Family Guy clears the hurdle by being so ridiculous that it doesn't need to clear the hurdle. Seth MacFarlane has a demonstrated ability to get me to suspend my disbelief for humor products. And he's not doing it here.

There are structural, plot, and character elements of the problem. I get that the intent is to walk a line that includes both homage and satire/parody. I think a basic problem here is that the parody gets in the way of the homage. Sometimes, as in episode seven, "Majority Rule," the problem stems from all three: the conflict in the episode (sidebar: direct plot steal from the utterly wretched TNG season one episode "Justice") derives from a crew member's rowdy behavior on a covert rescue mission. The behavior is pure parody that completely abnegates the homage and the story.  WTF is this goofy douchebag doing in a military service, let alone on a covert mission? The plot contrivance, driven by dissonant comedic behavior, leads to the plot theft and massively overloads any hope of a coherent story.

This works in Family Guy. It's a cartoon. Peter can turn his family station wagon into a pirate land-cruiser; he can have a 15-minute death match with the Giant Chicken; he can abandon Stewie in a park while he gets drunk at the Clam. I chose to watch a cartoon and that's what I get.

Not so with The Orville. Look, the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises both incorporated elements of humor, countless lighter moments sprinkled through the gravity of the larger stories (some of the humor, like the endless race-based McCoy-Spock feud of TOS, doesn't even hold up all that well). And cranking up the volume on the humor, while maintaining a little gravitas, is something that should be plausible. And it's something that MacFarlane explicitly wants to achieve. It's not even criminal that MacFarlane returns to his base entertainment instincts by overamping the humor. It just really screws up the tone of this show. It is without gravitas or majesty. That probably sounds like I've got a giant stick screwed into an overly tight sphincter. But you cannot deny that gravitas and majesty are significant elements of the Star Trek universe, however overdrawn some plots and no matter how ridiculous Kirk is in retrospect.

"Majority Rule" is far from the only messy plot. Shortcuts and deus ex machina are Orville staples, and there's nothing unforgivable about that. It's science fiction. You don't want to write a freaking physics lecture for every episode. I saw a link to a video about the science of The Orville, and I ran away screaming to watch cute bunny vids or some such shit. Look, I'd expect a show walking the homage/parody border to skate over some logic holes. We're talking giant leaps over major problems here.

Another issue is triteness; a recurring plot device is that MacFarlane's character, the ship's captain, used to be married to his first officer. Who cuckolded him with an alien. An alien who shoots blue goo when excited. Okay, it's parody. All good. What's trite is the constant draw on romantic tension between the captain and first officer. MacFarlane's Ed Mercer vacillates between rage and tenderness toward Adrianne Palicki's Kelly Grayson, who vacillates between remorse and jealousy toward Mercer. In one episode, Grayson just doesn't trust Charlize Theron (whose character has it on with Mercer), who turns out to be less than truthful. Horrors! I had to teach Databoy the meaning of "hackneyed" here. I did not have to teach him the meaning of "Charlize Theron" (along with Frakes and MacNeil as directors, MacFarlane does have an awesome talent for recruiting some pretty incredible guest stars for his content, and he makes pretty damned good use of them).

Some other characters, while well-played, are over-the-top stereotypes, in particular Scott Grimes' Gordon Malloy, an insubordinate wildman pilot, and J Lee's John LaMarr (whose statue-humping on a covert mission in a society governed by social media led to the aforementioned tale of woe). They're funny. They're great cartoon characters. But the show ain't a cartoon.

And I don't want to impugn all of the acting. Penny Johnson Jerald (formerly of DS9) is a great addition to the cast, which didn't rescue the episode that featured her character. Halston Sage is an unexpected delight as the petite (but superhumanly strong) security chief. As for the actors I don't care for all that much, I think the problem isn't so much their skills as the weight of their characters--the ones I'm not naming are just irritatingly direct ripoffs of other famous TV sci-fi characters.

There's another structural problem here; MacFarlane has chosen to translate his perfectly normal and in no way problematic obsession with 80s/90s culture to yet another venue--one 400 years in our future. In one episode, the bridge crew watches an episode of Seinfeld on the main viewing screen (leading to a very funny bit about teaching a robot character cribbed from Spock, TNG's Data, Buck Rogers' Tweaky, and every other robot or android character evar, about humor). It's amazing how consistently all of the crew's cultural references date back to the end of the 20th century...and no other time. I saw episode 8 this morning and had to take a long break when MacFarlane's character cracked a Barry Manilow joke. You know what? This trend is parodying our obsession with our own exceptionalism. That's fine. But damn, it's a long way around the maypole, and this show is making me work way too freaking hard to enjoy it.

And yet, I keep watching. One reason is that it's become a family enterprise; Databoy loves it, and Ilse was getting irritated with my mockery of the show until last week, when it all suddenly broke through and she got the point. Same with Whispers, who does some small portion of his TV-watching in this house. I went outside to smoke after the last episode and came back inside to Ilse and Whispers dealing the show a lively post-broadcast whipping, based muchly on my itemized critique. I'm okay with having been down on the show before it was cool.

TL;DR: If you like MacFarlane or science fiction, watch the show and decide for your own damn self. If you hate MacFarlane, just walk away, because this isn't gonna change that. Nuh-uh. Me, I'll keep watching. Christ, I watched Voyager, how fucking sophisticated can I be?

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Every night, before I go to bed, I breathe a tiny little silent prayer to whatever power powers this life and multiverse, hoping against all reasonable hope that you will be able to find meaningful employ in the soonest possible frame because clearly you have entirely too much fucking time on your hands.

But seriously folks, that reminds me of the time...

I've seen 3 or 4 episodes of The Orville. Your take is pretty much spot on by my own meager lights, and your articulation of same is enviable. I, too, can watch the Teds or Million Ways over and over. The scene in Ted2 where they're getting stoned at the adorable lawyer's office (the atty with the Golum eyes fer chrissakes) and naming the strains of pot made me wet myself: "How long has that van been there?" "Help me get home". And my bunch is all about South Park and Family Guy (but Simpsons never caught on with us). I will say this, first seasons of TV shows don't always get it right—Mr. Robot being a notable exception. I'm willing to give Sethy boy a chance to redeem because I see Fox has signed him up for a second season.

But seriously, you came out of blegtirement for this?