Fox premiered Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek-ish comedy, The Orville, last night. Was it as bad as all the early reviews claimed it would be? It was worse, actually, because nothing truly captures the pain of something actually managing to crawl under the low bar it set for itself. And there’s no reason for The Orville to be that bad, since plenty of other comedies have managed to achieve all the things MacFarlane wants to do, but can’t.
Though MacFarlane and company have claimed that The Orville isn’t a comedy or a drama, but some new hybrid that has been inaccurately sold as a parody, there’s actually nothing new in The Orville. The jokes that are based in the cultural osmosis achieved by Star Trek don’t really say anything about the show. The low-brow sex jokes are just... gross and weird. And the serious parts are flat-out boring in way that gives Star Trek: The Motion Picture a run for its money.
An obvious failure of The Orville springs from the fact that we already know what smart, strong science fiction comedy looks like in TV form. And it’s not usually sustainable in live action. Live-action parody tends to be in sketch form (Saturday Night Live, The Carol Burnett Show) because the jokes can only really work as short punches, not sustained. When it has worked, it’s mostly been in animation, with Futurama and Rick and Morty the obvious examples of success. Futurama’s premise is just stronger than The Orville’s—Fry’s fish-out-of-water deal is an obvious comedic in, whereas The Orville’s just... headed out there. And Rick and Morty even began its existence as a parody of Back to the Future before growing into its own thing, much like The Orville clearly owes its existence to Star Trek. Maybe The Orville will likewise grow, but there’s so much less promise in it than the earliest Rick and Morty that it seems unlikely.
That all said, if we want to draw a straight line from live-action science fiction comedy to The Orville, we mostly have to stick to film. And here are five films that highlight specific, huge failures of The Orville.
We’re going to start with the obvious here, but there might be some people who love science fiction but haven’t seen Galaxy Quest. Galaxy Quest casts a shadow that The Orville just can’t get out from under. There’s been some pushback from MacFarlane on the idea that The Orville is simply meant to be a parody. He’s claiming it’s more like an optimistic scifi show that happens to have some jokes. Unfortunately for him, we have an example of a story that nails the parody and still tells a lovely, optimistic story about humans getting over their bad qualities and saving others.
The Orville is also bad even as simple, low-brow comedy. Spaceballs is a master class in how you can just be silly with your jokes and still make something worth watching. A visual gag as simple as a teleportation beaming that accidentally puts Mel Brooks’ head on backwards, or a joke as dumb as the villains managing to catch the stunt doubles, are all better jokes than anything in The Orville. There are long stretches of MacFarlane’s show that are just boring. Spaceballs is never boring. Jokes fly so fast and so quick that even if one doesn’t land, you don’t really have time to notice. The Orville’s jokes sit there, surrounded by nothing, for so long. SO LONG.
Hey, you know what The Orville has plenty of? Weirdly explicit sex jokes. Now, you could watch facial ejaculation jokes at 8:00 p.m. on prime time television or you could just watch the softcore spoof Flesh Gordon—a parody of, what else, Flash Gordon. Is Ming renamed Wang? OF COURSE HE IS. Is there a monster called “penisaurus”? ALSO YES. Does Craig T. Nelson voice a giant monster who yells, “My ass!”? YEP. Flesh Gordon was made in 1974 and has a better grasp of how to add sex to science fiction in a funny way than Orville does. (The film’s age only adds another level of joy.)
Back in 2000, James Gunn made a movie about the “sixth or seventh” most popular superhero team on their day off. It’s a movie with a tiny budget that spends time developing its superhero characters so that, even if they’re clearly parodies of tropes we know—Minute Man shrinks, the Weevil has bug powers, Mr. Smart is an inventor, etc.—they’re still individuals. The Orville’s characters aren’t individuals at all. After watching the premiere last night, the only character name I remember today is “Seth MacFarlane’s dude.”
If The Orville wasn’t meant to be a true parody of Star Trek, as MacFarlane claims, then maybe it should have picked up something of Mars Attacks!’s ability to toe the line between throwback and inventiveness. Even something as bold as the way characters were gruesomely dispatched in Mars Attacks! would be welcome in The Orville. While Mars Attacks! has grown on people with time, Orville gets so much worse the more you watch it.