If you were confused watching the debut of Fox's The Orville tonight, you weren't alone. With Seth MacFarlane starring and creating the series about a spaceship crew 400 years in the future, many expected a space spoof with some poop jokes. It was definitely that at some points — more pee jokes than poop jokes, to be honest — but it was also an adventure show with some drama, which may have caught some people off guard.
The show will go even further off the course that Family Guy fans expected in coming episodes, and that's by design. That's also the biggest challenge the series will face. Conventional wisdom says a show's consistent identity is one of the most important aspects of success, but The Orville showrunner and frequent MacFarlane collaborator David A. Goodman thinks variety is a good thing. We spoke to Goodman to get his take on what the show is and how it will surprise fans — for better or worse — with its shifting tone.
Okay, we've seen the show now, and we're still not entirely sure where it will go. What is the show supposed to be?
David A. Goodman: Seth, when he set out to make this, really wanted to make something new. It is a drama, the way we tell our stories, we're paying attention to the drama and the stakes. But what he's done is create a show where the character interaction is comedic, without being silly. The idea is these are real people so the audience can relate to them. They're not necessarily heroic in the traditional sense, they're real people who become heroes. They're scared, they're angry, they're pissed off, they're in love... and we play a lot of those things for comedy. So we have this dramatic show but with these characters who interact comedically.
In terms of the show itself, Seth's plan was always — he didn't want anyone to know what the show was. So there are episodes that are very comedic, and there are episodes that are very dramatic. Because we're out in the universe and it takes place in the future, you've got a whole variety of stories you can tell and we're not going to limit ourselves into a cookie cutter idea of what the show is.
That's very brave, the idea of Seth wanting it to be a different type of show every week! How do you think viewers will react to it?
Goodman: For the audience, I actually don't think this is that new. Even Star Trek had a lot of humor in it. The Twilight Zone — sometimes it was mysterious, sometimes it was a dramatic episode, sometimes it was a sentimental episode, sometimes it was a comedic episode. Audiences for years have been open to this kind of show that isn't the same tone every week. If they're invested in the characters and in their lives, I think they'll show up. I hope.
Obviously Seth is front and center on this, he's the star and creator. He's known mostly for Family Guy and his other animated series. Do you think audiences will have a misconception about what the show is supposed to be based on the fact that Seth is attached to this?
Goodman: Certainly Seth's biggest successes are in comedy, but this is the guy who got Cosmos back on the air. This guy's a serious guy. He's serious about science, he's serious about political issues. There's no question that the biggest part of his audience comes to Seth's shows looking for big laughs, and there might be some confusion and some section of the audience who is coming [to The Orville] expecting to see a straight comedy, I guess that's possible. The hope is that Seth's audience shows up and says, "This isn't what I thought it was, but I like it." That's the hope.
I do think that when you have people in uniform on a spaceship and clips of spaceship battles with aliens, you get an audience that may be Seth's audience already but you'll see another audience that's like, "Alright, I want to see what this is. Is this a world that I want to be in?" I think you get kids, too, they'll be attracted to the humor but they'll stay for the adventure. I'm hopeful that a big audience finds the show and that we don't piss anyone off by not delivering what they expect. But my hope is that the show is well executed enough that if you showed up expecting something else, you stick around because what you're seeing is involving and fun.
You're a huge Star Trek fan. You wrote for Star Trek: Enterprise and wrote the Star Trek episode of Futurama. The Star Trek fandom can be very particular, and I think they'll be very interested in checking The Orville out. How should they view The Orville in terms of its relationship to Star Trek?
Goodman: I'm a huge Star Trek fan, so for me, I'm excited that this year there's going to be two shows on a spaceship. [Laughs] The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery. Star Trek fans are going to recognize the type of storytelling we're doing. That is, a more traditional episode-of-the-week, not a continuing story. Bringing up religion, politics, the way humans interact, commenting on aspects of our society through the lens of science fiction. That's what a lot of Star Trek fans come to Star Trek for, and I think they'll see something similar in our show. Really what it comes down to is all fans of genre television, whether it's shows like Firefly, Star Trek or Buffy, they come to the show because it's a world they want to be in. ... Star Trek fans, more than any other fans, are going to find a world they want to play in.
The third episode, which was screened for critics, has been called controversial for its subject matter, and tonally it's much further into darker territory. Can you talk about that episode and how it's different from what fans will see in the first two episodes?
Goodman: We get introduced to the culture of the Moclans, which is an all-male alien culture that our second officer Bortus comes from. Bortus and his mate have a child, and there's a controversy surrounding this child, and there's a controversy that reflects on aspects of our own current society. And we treat it very seriously, there's comedy in the episode but in terms of exploration of the subject — the controversy surrounding the child, I don't want to give too much away — it's serious, it obviously reflects aspects of society today. I think it's going to surprise audiences, especially audiences who come for the comedy because there's less comedy than other episodes. On the other hand, those looking for that science fiction television take on a modern problem, you're going to see something on TV that you don't see that often.
Are there more episodes like that later this season? Ones that are heavier or more political? What's the breadth of the show in the first season?
Goodman: Yeah! The fifth episode is a sort of a romance and space epic, it's a great science fiction idea that we haven't really seen on television and it treats it very seriously. Our eighth episode is a really scary episode that puts Isaac (Mark Jackson) and Claire (Penny Johnson Jerald) in a very dangerous situation. And then there are episodes that are wall-to-wall comedy. So it really is a variety throughout the 13 episodes.
We know Charlize Theron is making a guest appearance this season, and Seth is well connected in the industry. Who else can we expect to see?
Goodman: People you've seen Seth work with before do show up, and that's great. The second episode we see Seth's character's parents, played by Jeffrey Tambor and Holland Taylor. We got a couple more big surprises that I'm not allowed to talk about.
(This interview was edited for length.)
The Orville airs its next episode on Sunday, Sept. 17 after football on Fox, and then moves to its regular time period on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 9/8c.