The work of Seth MacFarlane is divisive...
However, not in the way the work of other comic personalities is. Trey Parker and Matt Stone divide opinions on taste, and what comedy should be allowed to tackle. Jim Jefferies has his confrontational manner, and his uncompromising opinions. The debate over Seth MacFarlane is more specific. It is coming to a head right now in the criticism over his new comedy science-fiction series The Orville. Critical and public reactions are mixed, and the conversation seems to be the same one that has plagued everything MacFarlane has done since 1999. It seems today that all you see is people comparing his recent work to Family Guy.
There's this strange, Family Guy centric bias against MacFarlane as a creator that's impossible for him to shake. It crops up in any discussion of his further work. American Dad, for instance, which many would argue is actually a better, more evolved show than Family Guy ever was, is generally seen as Family Guy's lame little brother. In contrast to Family Guy, American Dad has stayed consistently funny, and allowed for its characters to change and develop over time. It has also been able to tackle issues in ways that Family Guy hasn't. American Dad's episode on body image is a shockingly good twenty-minute take on the subject. Way better than a cartoon with a talking alien in it could reasonably be expected to be.
Then there's Seth MacFarlane's film canon. A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted, and Ted 2. People generally think of these as The Crappy Western Comedy, and The Peter Griffin Bear movies. A Million Ways was panned by critics, Ted was met with some praise (but not unanimous), and Ted 2 was largely ignored. A chief notation for all three? That they were nothing more than feature length Family Guy episodes. The title of WhatCulture's review of Ted 2 was literally "Nothing More Than A Live-Action Family Guy Episode". The title of The National's review of Ted was "If you love Family Guy, you'll like Ted." Users on Rotten Tomatoes said about A Million Ways to Die that it was "far too much like Family Guy." Not only do we have to compare everything he does to Family Guy, doing so is both a positive, and a negative critique. Therefore it a useless point of comparison.
Personally I enjoyed all three of these films. A Million Ways was not perfect by any means, but it had its laughs. It also had a solid concept. "What if we made a Western, but also took in to account the actual mortality rate of the old west?" That's smarter than anyone gives it credit for. Similarly, the Ted films are surprisingly intelligent. Yes, it's about an alcoholic, swearing, sentient stuffed animal. But it's also an allegory for growing up after having been a child-star, and the disaffection that comes with it. However, these movies can't escape the shadow of MacFarlane's legacy property. Honestly it's a little infuriating, and it limits the conversation around his continuing work. I almost feel sorry for MacFarlane. I mean, I don't… the guys doing fine. He's worth $200m and he dated Emilia Clarke for a while, he doesn't need my pity.
Now lets take all this and look at The Orville. As mentioned earlier, it is being enjoyed by some of the TV audience, and met with indifference and annoyance by critics. However, it has a strong foundational concept. What if the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation had normal people in it? The comedy is coming out of the characters, and their blending of standard science-fiction types with more grounded problems. You have a career captain devoted to the job, and he has to work with his cheating ex-wife. The helmsman is a brilliant pilot trying to deal with his past mistakes, and kind of a stoner. One of the bridge crew of an interstellar starship just wants to know if he can have a soda next to him while he works. It's not just mimicking The Next Generation, it is structurally almost identical. And I can't help but feel that the reaction to that would be more positive if it weren't for the specter of Family Guy looming over proceedings.
So, judging on its own terms, without mention of Family Guy, how is The Orville? It's not bad. Not perfect, but there's a lot to like. Enjoyable characters, strong cast, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. It's also not afraid to take itself seriously. It's third episode, whilst an untidy fable for gender issues, had moments of genuine heart, and demonstrated a commitment to the kind of storytelling that made Next Generation as great as it was.
It is still finding its feet with its sense of humor. There is some MacFarlane style riffing here and there, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it breaks the flow of the episode. The series is very fun, however, when the humor is coming directly from its characters. Seeing the stoic Bortus (the series' Klingon stand-in) profoundly moved by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is a great moment of character comedy. It's a little jarring that it's a fulcrum point for the episode, but it's a good humorous beat. There is also much joy in seeing food replicators used to summon up shots of tequila and weed-brownies.
In summary, The Orville is off to a decent, but rocky start. Its execution is currently at about sixty percent. That's no different from a whole host of great shows. The first series of Parks and Rec was dirgey. The first episode of Rick and Morty was problematic. And lest we forget that Next Generation was pretty trashy for most of its first, and a lot of its second season? Successful classics have had worse starts than this show; and it really helps to watch it and not think about Family Guy when you do. Maybe we can all forget about Family Guy for a bit. I think it would be good for our collective mental health.
Watch The Orville Thursday night on Fox at 9/8c
Thomas Burns Scully is a PopDust contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
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