The Art of Nerding Out
There’s a lot of buzz flying around lately about “Star Trek”. Not only is there a new “Trek” series that just debuted, “Star Trek: Discovery”, but Fox has also dropped “The Orville”, a “Trek” spoof created by “Family Guy” main man Seth McFarlane.
“The Orville” chronicles the adventures of the crew of the titular ship, a mid-sized cruiser captained by Ed Mercer (McFarlane). Mercer not only has to deal with the usual travails one deals with when captaining a starship, but also with having his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), assigned to him as his first officer. The show liberally borrows ingredients from the “Star Trek” recipe, while maintaining a semi-comedic tone that’s closer to a show like “Firefly”.
And critics have not been impressed. The show is currently sitting at a 20% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com, meaning that the vast majority of critics the website surveys haven’t liked it. Detractors say the show is way too inconsistent tonally, bland, inconsequential and doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Meanwhile, “The Orville” is getting mostly positive word of mouth from TV audiences. They say it’s a fun, funny ride that’s far more respectful of “Star Trek” than “Discovery”. Its audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a healthy 89%. That’s right, 89% of Rotten Tomatoes users have rated to show have done so positively.
This divide fascinates me. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this phenomenon. In fact, it’s an old hat. For years, critics have panned popular movies and TV shows, only to watch audiences make them soar to popularity anyway. But “The Orville” seems to me to be a special case, since it’s connected to a beloved franchise like “Trek” and because another network is premiering its own “Trek” show in such close chronological proximity. So I decided I’d watch “The Orville” for myself and see if I could come up with any answers why the show is getting so bashed.
And after watching the first two episodes, I haven’t any solid ideas why critics hate “The Orville”. I actually enjoyed it.
While far from perfect, “The Orville” is an enjoyable watch. The characters are well-written and acted. Captain Mercer, in particular is well-conceived as a man trying for redemption after his life fell apart. That’s easy to relate to, as most of us have had to go through something similar at one time or another, and it quickly gets us on Mercer’s side.
Kelly is also a solid character, and you can see her perspective on things and why she left Mercer. The second episode sees security officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) grow as a result of commanding the Orville while Mercer and Kelly are away on a mission. That’s solid storytelling, human and full of heart, and it puts the show on a solid foundation.
The look of the show is delightfully spare, perhaps an indication of budgetary constraints, or perhaps a tip of the hat to the set design of the original “Star Trek” series back in the 60s. There are crazy looking aliens and the spaceships all seem designed to be visual indicators of whoever is flying them.
And there’s so much else I can’t wait to learn about in “The Orville”. I want to know about Isaac, the Orville science officer and snooty artificial life form who considers all biological life to be inferior. I’m hoping to see more of Mercer’s life before it went in the toilet. I want to see an episode where navigator LaMarr and helmsman Malloy go on an adventure together, cuz they’re fun to watch together. I’m excited by the possibilities.
The biggest flaw in “The Orville” is that not all the jokes work. A lot of one-liners fail to connect with the funny bone. But there were some pretty good laughs to be had to. Hopefully, in the future, McFarlane and the writers will ditch the unfunny jokes and focus on the genuinely funny stuff.
As for why critics hate “The Orville”, well, there are theories. They range from critics distaste for McFarlane to CBS paying them off so “Star Trek: Discovery” will have less competition. As a critic, I know the we often see things very differently from others when we watch a movie or a TV show. But for the life of me, I don’t get what critics are seeing that makes them hate “The Orville”. Because I see a lot of possibilities.