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After an excellent second season, Seth MacFarlane's show needs to come back
I've got some bad news for you: Over the next few weeks, some of your favorite shows are going to be canceled. Networks are planning their schedules for next season, which means they need to decide which shows will return for a new season and which will give up their spots (and lives!) for something new. But Fox would be a bunch of morons crammed into a clown car if it decided to cancel its sci-fi series The Orville, because it really deserves a third season after a stellar Season 2.
When The Orville was announced, we all thought it would be Family Guy... In Spaaaace!, but the series is so much more than creator Seth MacFarlane making fart jokes in zero gravity. Sure, MacFarlane's trademark potty humor wafts into the frame at times on The Orville, but more prevalent is his adoration for Star Trek, of which The Orville is a worthy homage to.
Star Trek's sense of optimism and exploration makes up the bones of The Orville, creating a genre-hopping, throwback adventure series that makes sci-fi accessible to all. And that's probably what initially threw critics off; it wasn't a comedy, though it had laughs, and it wasn't a drama, thought it certainly had dramatic moments. It defied convention and was a show the likes of which hadn't been seen on television for decades in today's hyper-specific world that demands TV be something or fit into a category (shows can't just be broad sci-fi nowadays).
Understandably, that's tough for today's audience, which is why Season 1 was just a warm-up for Season 2. The foundations of the ensemble cast were being set and the boundaries of the possibly limitless sci-fi universe and its technology were just being touched, but in Season 2, The Orville took the next great leap and made the best use of both.
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Take, for example, the season's 11th episode "Lasting Impressions." The USS Orville's pilot Gordon (Scott Grimes) becomes enamored with the ship's simulation of a woman from 2015 based on a phone message she left as part of a time capsule. It's an idea that isn't new -- Black Mirror's "Be Right Back" explored the idea of love with an android recreated from a social media footprint, Spike Jonze's Her saw Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with a phone AI, and Bender once fell in love with a ship in Futurama-- but it isn't an idea you're likely to see anywhere on broadcast television, which prefers to keep it simple. But on The Orville, which dares to go where few broadcast shows go, it's a telling window into Gordon's psyche; the guy just wants a girlfriend, and the story lays that out with all the moral quandaries that go with it when you have the technology to "create" a girlfriend. It's a story that wouldn't have been as effective in Season 1 since we didn't know him as well, but in Season 2, it's heartbreaking to see Gordon left alone, again, and builds his character up a lot more from the wise-cracking sidekick he was known as in Season 1. (Grimes was one of the few main cast members who didn't have an episode dedicated to his character in Season 1.)
The better character development was shared with the rest of the cast, too. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) showed rare weakness when it was discovered he was using the ship's version of Trek's holodeck to create a "sex lagoon" to fulfill his physical desires, which sounds really weird and admittedly was, but the risk paid off. It's a side of Bortus we thought we'd never see, but chips away at his hard exterior to show us he's more like humans than we thought. We learned where Alara's (Halston Sage) lack of confidence came from with a visit to her home planet, we saw a softer side of Claire (Penny Johnson Jerald) as she made herself vulnerable and open to love (with a robot), and we learned a LOT about Isaac (Mark Jackson), the ship's robotic emissary.
On that last bit, would you believe that The Orville may have had the best action sequence on television this year? Unlocking Isaac's past became the backbone of the two-part thriller "Identity," the very best The Orville has been. It not only provided backstory to a character we've known since the pilot, it unlocked one of the show's many big secrets, cracked open the mythology of the show, and proved that The Orville can go big when it wants to. I'm not exaggerating when I say the action-packed second hour stood up against anything TV's current big space opera, The Expanse, has done, and it was arguably impressive enough to hold its own against anything in the theater.
But the most impressive thing The Orville pulled off in Season 2 was how to approach the big will-they-won't-they romance that's the center of the series. A little background: MacFarlane's Captain Ed Mercer and Adrianne Palicki's Kelly Grayson start the show off as a recently divorced couple who, through TV circumstances, end up as Captain and First Officer of the same ship, and their tension forms the chief conflict in the series. In Season 1, the two decided to go their separate ways while remaining coworkers, seemingly putting to rest any chance of them getting back together (and cast members said they wouldn't). They take turns with new significant others, while always looking over their should each other. Pretty standard stuff.
However, in the penultimate episode, timelines are screwed up and a seven-years-younger Kelly appears on the ship, reopening wounds through sci-fi romance. It's a chance for Ed to give Kelly another shot, but it's also a chance for Kelly to see what a weird space she was in back then. What should be kind of a gross situation -- Ed is getting back together with a younger version of Kelly right in front of OG Kelly -- becomes a thoughtful look at what could have been. It's a cake-and-eat-it-too situation that isn't permanent, but as a unique exploration of a simmering relationship on television, it's an outstanding workaround. After a season of settling in The Orville, known for its standalone grab-bag episodes of the week, found ways to tell better stories that tied together its past while not breaking its identity.
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All this is to say that The Orville blossomed in Season 2 thanks in part to the one thing that was eluding it in Season 1: familiarity. We're not just getting used to these characters and this world through repetition, we're getting to know them better because the series is telling the stories about them that we need to know and using the base it laid in Season 1 as a foundation for bigger and better adventures. The Orville appears to just be getting started. Plus, Season 2 had an alien laser battle set to Dolly Parton's "9 to 5." How many shows can say that?
Give it a third season, Fox.
The Orville is available to stream on Hulu.