The Orville’s identity crisis continues as the series struggles to find a middle ground where it can work as a sitcom and a sci-fi drama.
If you thought the identity crisis of The Orville was just a case of the show having a wonky pilot episode, you might be surprised to find out the show still has no idea what it is in episode 2, ‘Command Performance.’ The hour takes the new series so deep into sitcom territory it actually pauses to stage a familiar sitcom scenario between a bickering (ex) husband and wife, when Ed and Kelly find themselves imprisoned in an extraterrestrial zoo by a race of technologically superior aliens. It isn’t just that ‘Command Performance’ continues The Orville‘s questionable relationship with comedy, or that it once again feels like the show hews far too closely to Star Trek to be an actual homage and instead feels more like a full-on rip off, it’s that until the series figures out what it is, those watching (and apparently there are quite a few) are going to be stuck with a hodgepodge TV show whose parts don’t add up to anything in particular.
As purely a demonstration of the show’s episodic nature, ‘Command Performance’ is fine. It even divides itself into distinct A and B plots wherein Ed and Kelly are remanded to the aforementioned alien zoo, while the grossly inexperienced but impossibly strong Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) becomes the ship’s highest-ranking officer, since Bortus (Peter Macon) is expecting his child and has to incubate an egg in his quarters. These separate plot lines offer slightly more justification for this being an hour-long quasi-drama than the premiere. The problem is, neither the A nor the B plot is very interesting. It’s only the second episode, so of course Ed and Kelly will find a way out of the alien zoo. The same holds true for Alara, whose thread of learning to be a leader and knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them aligns most closely with the series’ oft-repeated goal of bringing aspirational sci-fi back to television.
But doubling down on the aspirational aspect of the series only makes the moments when Ed and Kelly are imprisoned in an exact replica of their home back on Earth all the more perplexing. Here, The Orville feels like it’s at war with itself, as the intended spirit of the series clashes greatly with the nature of MacFarlane’s brand of comedy. While Alara and the crew of the Orville debate whether or not to follow commands and leave the ship’s captain and first officer to their fate, the show gets back to the sticky nature of Ed and Kelly’s marriage – the one that ended so badly it too was a pitch perfect homage to the opening moments of the frat-boy humor of Old School and other stories that begin with infidelity.
What sets ‘Command Performance’ apart, though, is the way in which the set-up at the zoo actually turns Ed and Kelly’s predicament into a sitcom. Their domestic life and marital woes are literally put on display for the amusement and entertainment of others (just not those watching FOX here on Earth, apparently). Still, there is something potentially smart happening that goes beyond the stale joke of mundane everyday life being put on display in the most extraordinary circumstances possible, but The Orville just isn’t quite nimble or interested enough to take advantage. Instead, it settles for a few tired jokes about noisy eating and Ed’s choice to drink a space beer before noon.
It doesn’t say much about the characters or the show that we don’t already know, and the only upside is that Ed and Kelly seem to question whether or not they should have ever been a couple in the first place. Whether or not that means MacFarlane is closing the door on Ed and Kelly’s relationship, or simply tabling it for later remains to be seen, but it would be a step in the right direction for the show to explore how the two function without a potential romantic angle fruitlessly stirring up intrigue. And since that would be a step in the right direction, you can all but guarantee The Orville won’t be dropping it anytime soon.
Aside from another sitcom-y cameo in which Jeffrey Tambor appears as Ed’s father (or at least a convincing simulation of him), the most the audience might get out of ‘Command Performance’ is the sense that The Orville might be, in its heart of hearts, kind of a melancholy show. Maybe it’s sad because it doesn’t know what sort of series it wants to be, or what audience it wants to be for. Maybe it’s sad because it’s being sold as a comedy (at least partially) but hasn’t delivered any laughs. The question is: Does The Orville want to be a sitcom or a sci-fi drama? It doesn’t necessarily have to choose, but it should at least try to excel at one aspect instead of remaining inadequate at both.
The Orville continues next Sunday with ‘About a Girl’ on FOX.
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