Much like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, The Orville seems to be one of those ventures that professional critics and fanboys alike hated before a single frame was viewed; it became cool to deride them.
Here are a few examples of why this criticism seems unfair. And a word of caution: everything from here on will be SPOILERS.
Captain Mercer (series creator Seth MacFarlane): He’s not a stud like Kirk or confident like Picard. He’s a captain of a ship that’s part of a fleet of 3000 other ships. Not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and it’s fun to see an imperfect and fallible captain find his footing with each episode.
Security Officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) caved into pressure from her commander and only after experiencing the more immediate peer pressure, did she elect to do the right thing, leaving one to ponder this seeming and unexpected character flaw (though it is relatable as a flaw all too common in us humans).
Episode 3 is when The Orville announced itself as something atypical. The story concerned the birth of a female to a race of creatures that are all male. Conditioned conventions of values were leading us in one direction — that gender reassignment on an infant for reasons purely based on archaic, “backward” thinking regarding a culture the crew didn’t understand, would resolve with at least one of the parents seeing the light. They didn’t, and the show ended with them having the surgery performed. Tradition and cultural tastes simply overrode what the rest considered moral or proper. Just like the real world we live in. It was a fake-out and a bold move, and the ending felt wrong and sad, but also conveyed the reality of having to accept issues and cultures we don’t understand and cannot influence. Depending on your POV, this episode was either PC or non-PC, making it very smart.
Similarly, the pre-flight divorce and on-board reunion of Captain Mercer and Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki, the almost-was TV Wonder Woman) is handled with a level of maturity and sophistication that one may not normally associate with MacFarlane. Their breakup and slow reconciliation between has mostly been handled in a serious manner, interspersed with bitter jokes from Mercer, and they don’t seem forced.
I suspect this is the crux of the problem so many have with The Orville — it’s playing against their definitions of who MacFarlane is, and of what MacFarlane should be doing. There’s really no gross-out, or even juvenile humor, and tonally, the show is dramatically different than anything MacFarlane has done to date, and many critics’ opinions of the show were formed before they saw a single frame of it; their reviews then simply conformed to their preconceptions.
Yes, there is an obvious Star Trek: The Next Generation influence, and it’s most apparent in the costuming, set design, and character selection. This isn’t necessarily a lazy rip-off, but rather a canny move — MacFarlane has given us familiar elements to better ease us into his somewhat unfamiliar premise. I think it’s interesting that The Orville feels more like Star Trek than Star Trek: Discovery, which is dour and lacking charm; both critical elements within the Trek franchise.
Don’t take my word for it — previous Star Trek directors Brannon Braga, James L. Conway, and Jonathan Frakes see some merit in The Orville, as they’ve all directed episodes. And fortunately, while professional critics hate it (20% on Rotten Tomatoes), the mass audience reception on the same site is much more encouraging with an 89% score.
So give The Orville a look, you might just be pleasantly surprised.