If the season 2 premiere of The Orville is any indication, the not-quite Star Trek spoof from series creator and star, Seth MacFarlane, has found its footing and maybe its identity in telling smaller, more character-driven stories, that better serve its sometimes confounding mix of sincerity and irreverence. The series may have been a hit with audiences when it aired on FOX last year, but it didn’t strike a similar chord with critics, who took issue with the show’s often awkward balance of broad humor and earnest dramatic storytelling. Add to that the feeling that The Orville was really just a collection of not-great Stark Trek fan fiction, and you had a series that was destined to irk someone, in some way or another.
The catch was, of course, that The Orville wasn’t meant to be as divisive as it was. Clearly designed to be a crowd-pleaser, the series ultimately fell short in that endeavor. But, after its first season, the show returns with a late-2018 premiere that was boosted by its post-football slot on FOX. Moreover, MacFarlane’s sci-fi series makes its surprisingly quiet return with a softer, less ambitious, but more successful character-driven episode that, despite still struggling to balance its tone, feels like a template for a more worthwhile season of television.
‘Ja’loja’ doesn’t have the most auspicious of beginnings, as a one-off joke from the first season about Bortus’ (Peter Macon) biology turns into the engine that ultimately drives the plot for the hour. Requiring the ship to alter its course so that Bortus can participate in an alien urination ritual is the sort of thing that’s stymied The Orville in that past, as MacFarlane, who wrote and directed the episode, attempts to cut the situation both ways: as an earnest depiction of an alien culture, right down to the specifics of their biological functions, and as a puerile joke machine about humorless aliens traveling to their home planet to relieve themselves annually in front of loved ones.
Micturation jokes aside, ‘Ja’loja’ reveals MacFarlane’s renewed handle on what it means for his characters to be aboard the Orville, and how they interact with one another. To pull this off, he opts for a series of disparate plots involving Ed’s (MacFarlane) feelings for his ex-wife Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), which are further complicated by her new relationship with Orville schoolteacher Cassius (Chris Johnson). In addition to being a nice-enough guy who doesn’t get bent out of shape when Ed does a drive by on Kelly’s window, Cassius is involved in a spat between Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and the parents of a trouble maker who’s becoming a bad influence on her son, Marcus (B.J. Tanner). Meanwhile, Gordon (Scott Grimes) and Alara (Halston Sage) find themselves navigating the choppy romantic waters aboard the Orville, as each tries (and fails) to launch a new relationship.
It’s incredibly low-stakes stuff, and that proves to be the premiere’s saving grace. With the exception of the Bortus-related bathroom humor, ‘Ja’loja’ doesn’t have the same kind of high-minded aspirations that got the show into trouble in the first season. Instead, the hour simply allowed these characters (human and otherwise) to handle personal situations with varying degrees of success. Most of the jokes still landed with a thud, but there was a breezy quality to the interpersonal banter that hinted at the show’s increased understanding of who its characters are and who they may eventually become. A highlight of the hour was Ed and Kelly’s exchanges, which felt a bit like MacFarlane reaching for a Sam and Diane-like dynamic. That comparison seemed more accurate as the hour found its characters mingling with one another in the ship’s dining and bar area more than, say, their quarters or on the bridge. Add to that the addition of Jason Alexander as Olix, the ship’s jazz-loving slinger of drinks, and you have the potential for The Orville to shed the spoof persona it never really wanted in the first place, to become a workable workplace comedy with some dramatic elements.
Whether or not ‘Ja’loja’ proves to be a new norm for The Orville remains to be seen, but even as a possible one-off episode, it raises the bar in terms of the show’s overall quality and presentation. There’re hints of where the series may be going, especially with regard to the new dark matter cartographer, Lt. Tyler (Michaela McManus). While Tyler may help move the series away from watching Ed pine for his ex, it may also have to address challenges of its own, particularly with regard to a potential love triangle between Tyler, Ed, and Gordon. That could be tricky territory, given the show’s history, but if it affords The Orville more chances for smaller, character-driven hours, it could be a conflict worth exploring.
The Orville season 2 continues with ‘Primal Urges’ on Thursday, January 3 @9pm on FOX.