NEW YORK – The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi comedy/drama, is a lot like Star Trek – except when it isn’t. Debating the relative ethics of gender reassignment in an all-male society? Classic Trek. Breaking up the tension with jokes about old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials? That’s closer to Family Guy.
Although the show is still trying to find the perfect balance between drama and comedy, it’s amassed a pretty considerable fan base in the meantime. Some of The Orville’s cast and crew gathered at New York Comic Con 2017 for a panel, and spent almost the entire time taking questions from fans. The show is still evolving – but it’s apparently evolving in a way that both the production team and the network executives are excited about.
Those of you who read my review of The Orville’s first episode know that I didn’t like it very much. The jokes weren’t very funny, and detracted from an otherwise-OK story. However, as the season has progressed, the show has gotten better. If it’s not exactly “good” yet, it’s at least “watchable.” Some of the narrative arcs have been rock solid, and the jokes – while not any funnier – are less obtrusive than before.
Not that my analysis (or the rest of the critical reception) bothered the cast very much.
“I don’t read anything from critics,” said Adrianne Palicki, who plays Cmdr. Kelly Grayson on the show. “The Orville is such a lovely thing to shoot, and [the negativity] takes away all the wonder that came with it. I don’t want to read people spitting on us.”
Palicki sat onstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom, along with Scott Grimes (Lt. Gordon Malloy), Penny Johnson Jerald (Dr. Claire Finn) and Brannon Braga (producer and director). Seth MacFarlane (Capt. Ed Mercer) joined via videoconference.
One question that came up right away was whether the show would ever have a musical episode. MacFarlane himself is an avowed lover of showtunes, and has written some very memorable songs for Family Guy, among other shows.
“As long as they don’t let me sing,” said Jerald, who prefers dancing to singing.
“I think we’d have to find a planet where everyone just sings,” Grimes added. Ultimately, the cast seemed game, but there are no immediate plans.
The most obvious inspiration for The Orville is Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation. One fan asked MacFarlane how much he tries to channel Trek while working on The Orville. MacFarlane responded that he wanted some of the general warmth and optimism from the Trek aesthetic, but he wasn’t interested in the “best-of-the-best” officers who occupy the bridge of the Enterprise.
“There’s a consistency to the classic starship captain mode,” he said. “They’re the paragons of virtue, models of nobility. That was what I was trying to steer away from. I haven’t yet seen the starship captain who’s not quite up to that level, who’s kind of the mediocre, mid-level accounting kind of guy.” Mercer isn’t so much Kirk and Picard, he explained – he’s the kind of captain to whom Star Trek would never devote a whole show.
One thing The Orville has done well during its run is to present the relationship between Mercer and Grayson, a divorced couple, as both supportive and antagonistic.
“There have to be layers to something like that,” said MacFarlane. “No one wants to see people at each other’s throats 24/7; they can get that on literally any other drama on television … I think, content-wise, there has to be a tension and release throughout. It can’t just be one-note. We’re going to try to sustain that throughout the series.”
Still, the cast and crew acknowledged that striking the right balance between laughs and thoughtfulness is not easy, and that getting it right is an ongoing process.
“It’s a balance that we’re still figuring out,” MacFarlane said. “The one show that really locked in that balance very well was M.A.S.H., and it’s a really hard balance to strike. I try to keep up with a lot of what the fans are saying, and we hear both sides. We hear people say, ‘I could use some more jokes,’ we hear people say, ‘I’m digging the stories, and I’m invested in the characters, and there are times when the jokes take me out of it. We’re trying to figure out what that Goldilocks zone is.”
MacFarlane did acknowledge that he is usually quick to forego jokes as the stakes in the episode get higher and higher, as the audience has to recognize when the crew is really in jeopardy.
Although The Orville is (at least in part) a comedy, MacFarlane still tries to get the scientific details right – and has bugged his friend, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, to double-check some of his crazier ideas.
“If we have an out-there premise, I’ve been known to call or text Neil at all hours of the night, and awaken him and his family, and disturb his peace,” MacFarlane joked. “He’s a great resource; he’s a born teacher. He loves to teach; he loves to educate. It’s cool to have access for the show, but it’s also cool to [just] hear him talk.”
Fans also asked Palicki and Jerald what it was like to play three-dimensional female characters on the show, and whether there was any validity to the tired “women aren’t funny” canard that occasionally makes the rounds on social media and in the comedy circuit.
“First of all, that’s bullsh**t,” Palicki responded. She cited Jerald as well as Halston Sage, who plays Lt. Alara Kitan, as living counterexamples. MacFarlane agreed, explaining that he specifically sought out a cast that could deliver both comedy and drama.
“I just play to people’s strengths,” he said. “Adrianne and Halston and Penny have all done comedy, and done comedy really well … What I try to do is listen to each person’s voice, and their cadences, and how they speak, and what kinds of comedy they spark to the most, and play to those strengths.”
Jerald’s inspiration for playing comedic roles, on the other hand, was simple:
“All you have to do is be the mother of a teenager,” she said.