Right from the word ‘engage,’ Seth MacFarlane
‘s sci-fi comedy The Orville
has had more than a few factors working against it. What with its arrival at the same time as the official Star Trek spinoff
, Star Trek: Discovery,
and MacFarlane’s pedigree as the mind behind Family Guy
(a show that has long since outstayed its welcome), FOX’s series had an uphill battle to climb in its first season. However, despite itself, persistent viewers found that The Orville
refreshingly steered away from the obnoxious cutaway humor MacFarlane is known for and his true mission – to provide a light-hearted, earnest, casual homage to episodic ’90s space opera like Star Trek: The Next Generation
. It’s basically an excuse for MacFarlane to do TNG
cosplay, and given its modestly successful results, it’s hard to begrudge him that wish. With “Ja’loja”, The Orville
plays to its strengths with an understated, character-driven second season premiere that functions more like a day-in-the-life starship story than anything involving aliens or galactic peril.
The main premise of “Ja’loja” (which MacFarlane himself wrote and directed) admittedly sounds like something from a Family Guy
cutaway gag: what if Klingons got pon farr
, and instead of having sex every seven years, they had to take an annual leak on their homeworld? As the episode opens, that time is nigh for straight-faced security officer Bortus (Peter Macon
), and so Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) redirects the Orville
to Moclus for the highly ritualized ceremony. This offers the crew a bit of downtime to deal with their own personal issues, and that they do – “Ja’loja” is primarily concerned with the dating lives and parenting skills of the Orville
‘s occupants, especially as most of them look for dates to Bortus’ Ja’loja ceremony. As such, the episode’s runtime flits lazily between subplots including Ed’s lingering feelings for first officer/ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrienne Palicki
) amidst her growing courtship with the ship’s schoolteacher (Chris Johnson
); Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald
) recruiting the android Isaac (Marc Jackson
) to help her deal with her increasingly rebellious son Marcus (BJ Tanner
); navigator Gordon (Scott Grimes
) asking chief engineer (and self-professed “girl guru”) John Lamarr (J Lee
) for advice on asking out the ship’s attractive new cartographer (Michaela McManus
); and security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage
) awkwardly trying to date the people-pleasing, poetry-writing Dann (Mike Henry
There’s not a lot plot-wise to propel “Ja’loja” forward, which makes it a strange choice for a second season premiere – focusing on reintroducing the ship’s crew and the state of their varying relationships. Chief among those is the Ed-Kelly dynamic, which has always been The Orville‘s Achilles heel since it dropped the more overtly Family Guy-esque humor in its first few episodes. The idea of a frazzled starship captain having to work with his ex-wife feels like a very bro-ey Seth MacFarlane premise, but part of The Orville‘s charm is that it seemed to get over the groan-worthy ‘marriage bad!’ jokes in favor of treating Ed and Kelly as two professionals who were always able to put their appreciation for each other’s talents before any personal resentment. Not so here; now, Ed’s suddenly hoping that he can work things out with Kelly again, which causes her no small amount of consternation – not just for their problems with timing, but for the inevitable ethical dilemmas that come from sending officers into dangerous situations. Sure, Ed comes to his senses eventually (and even offers some helpful, if sexist, advice for her all-too-accommodating beau: “be a little stupid every day, and really stupid every once in a while”), but let’s hope the will-they-won’t-they Ed/Kelly drama is finally put to bed. They work a lot better as partners, as they already proved to each other multiple times last season.
The rest of the show’s subplots provide comparatively shallow retreads of the same character beats we’ve been hammered with these characters so far. Alara’s awkward and insecure about her fitness for the job, Gordon’s a big awkward doof who learns the wrong lessons from the still-boring Lamarr (his transfer to engineering didn’t give him any more of a personality), and Isaac doesn’t understand human social cues. However, when combined they offer an intriguing case study for MacFarlane’s stated mission for The Orville as a show: to turn Star Trek into a workplace comedy, complete with all the “excessive casualization of space travel” that entails. In a vacuum, there’s little inherently interesting about watching a parent-teacher conference in space, or see Gordon suit up in a leather jacket that’s easily 75% zippers (“You always want one more zipper than you’re comfortable with,” Lamarr tells him) for a holodeck dating simulation.
But in concert, “Ja’loja” feels like the kind of day-in-the-life exploration of space travel we didn’t get much in Star Trek outside of “Data’s Day” or “Lower Decks”. It’s a shame, then, that little of this material really sticks out beyond the casual-Fridays atmosphere of the ship itself, which is already a staple of the show. There’s only so far you can take a ship full of a crew that’s, like, really chill with each other, especially when you don’t throw them into a sci-fi scenario that clashes entertainingly against their laissez-faire attitudes. A hangout episode isn’t a bad idea, but give us more entertaining scenarios to dig into in the future.
As Star Trek: Discovery‘s second season looks to borrow a little of The Orville‘s irreverence, the latter show seems prepared to take itself a bit more seriously like the former. It’s a curious tonal recalibration for both shows, and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle those changes. It’s tough to predict The Orville‘s intended course from this reserved Season 1 episode, but here’s hoping it puts a button on some of the show’s lingering character beats so its innocuously charming crew can move onto the business of exploring the universe.