The Orville shoots for the stars in an episode that attempts to blend melodrama, comedy, and a thorny ethical debate with less-than-successful results.
For a variety of reasons, primarily his resume of Family Guy and American Dad, as well as the feature films Ted (1 & 2) and A Million Ways to Die in the West, and especially his time hosting the Academy Awards when he sang 'We Saw Your Boobs', Seth MacFarlane isn't necessarily the guy you would think of when looking for a nuanced story about gender and culture and how the two are often knotted in some downright unpleasant ways for women. So far, despite attracting plenty of viewers and, just two episodes into its first season, some very passionate ones, his new television series The Orville hasn't convincingly demonstrated it knows what kind of show it wants to be, or that it understands how best to approach whatever it is MacFarlane and his crew dream the show will one day become.
The Orville has a lot on its to-do list (like writing a joke that not only feels appropriate in the moment, but is actually funny), so the idea of the show attempting to walk the ethical and political tightrope of infant gender reassignment surgery its third go-round is perhaps ill advised. That's not to say MacFarlane can't or shouldn't ever attempt to tell this kind of story. The material here is worth discussing and MacFarlane clearly feels passionate about it, but with so many aspects of the show simply not working, 'About a Girl' is a step too far too soon. Right now, it's like attempting to circumnavigate the globe piloting a hang glider full of holes. Not only is the job seemingly beyond the aircraft's capability, but in this case, the aircraft in question is also struggling to perform the actual task for which it was intended.
As a genre, science fiction or speculative fiction is certainly capable of exploring a story like the one in 'About a Girl'. And The Orville is incredibly earnest in its approach to the story of Bortus and Klyden, members of an alien race that typically only has one gender, discovering their newborn child is female. As is customary in their culture, the couple is obligated to have the child's gender reassigned, leading to an ethical debate onboard the Orville between Bortus and Captain Mercer after Dr. Finn refuses to perform the surgery and the couple opts to take the child to their home planet for the operation. From there, the episode delivers scene after scene of characters debating the many ethical questions that arise from the situation, as well as issues of gender discrimination, all while still attempting to navigate the show's tricky relationship with comedy. The result is a mess of an episode that's perhaps even clumsier at making its various parts fit than the pilot was.
The hour begins with a gelatinous, Norm Macdonald-voiced alien named Yaphit asking Dr. Finn out on a date, before segueing into a scene where Ed, Gordon, and John play cowboy in The Orville's version of Star Trek's holodeck. Aside from demonstrating once again The Orville intends to do what Star Trek does, without necessarily having a compelling reason to do so, the scene has no real bearing on the story whatsoever. If the scene were better at riffing on cowboys as a symbol of masculinity, or if it worked as a callback on Westworld, Three Amigos, or even MacFarlane's own A Million Ways to Die in the West, there might be reason for it to be there. Instead, the threat of Ed having to engage in a dance off with the villainous Vasquez is just a silly non sequitur, the likes of which are fairly commonplace on Family Guy.
The rest of the episode more or less follows suit, with 'About a Girl' being less about the girl in question or even the idea of sexual reassignment surgery being forced upon an infant, than it is people talking about the matter at hand. Characters equate the surgery with circumcision and repairing a cleft palate, while others argue the principles of judging another culture against a universal code of ethics. Even Klyden surprises with the revelation that he was born female and underwent the surgery his daughter is about to undergo, but surprisingly little comes from that information. Mostly, The Orville approaches the topic with a saccharine earnestness that's kind of admirable until watching the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie becomes the impetus of a major turning point for Bortus, and any point the show is trying to make is essentially rendered moot.
Turning the second half of the 'About a Girl' into a dull courtroom drama, and throwing in some very specific 21st century references to board games and a crack about the credited writers on a Destiny's Child song makes matters worse. After a tribunal filled with jokes and arguments that fall flat, grinding scenes to a halt and further contributing to the uneven pacing that's so far been the only consistent thing about the show, the episode reaches a dramatic conclusion that feels entirely unearned and self-congratulatory at the same time.
Given what the show has presented so far, the decision to spend an hour on a topic like this, much less attempt to successfully squeeze laughs from the scenario, is an odd choice. You can probably give The Orville credit for shooting for the stars in its attempt to engage with such a complicated topic, but at this stage in the series' development the attempt is an unsuccessful one.
The Orville continues next Thursday with 'If the Stars Should Appear' @9pm on FOX.