“New Horizons” Was The Orville Seth MacFarlane Always Wanted

In an exclusive interview, Orville creator Seth MacFarlane maintains an optimism regarding the fate of the show that would make Gene Roddenberry proud.

The Orville: New Horizons -- “Domino” - Episode 309 -- The creation of a powerful new weapon puts the Orville crew — and the entire Union — in a political and ethical quandary. Capt. Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), shown.
Photo: Michael Desmond | Hulu

This interview contains spoilers for The Orville: New Horizons finale.

As Hulu’s The Orville: New Horizons awaits its fate, the renewal purgatory isn’t exactly new territory for its creator. One of the busiest producers in television today, Seth MacFarlane is responsible for an encyclopedia of adult animated programs and has had to deal with the proverbial sword hanging above his head many times before. Fortunately for him, there always seems to be another show and another fresh new idea down the pipeline. 

Five years ago, The Orville was just that: a fresh new idea. This time, the former animator aimed for a live-action tribute to the Star Trek shows that shaped him. After two successful seasons on Fox, the show’s future was thrust into doubt thanks to a Disney acquisition and the COVID-19 pandemic. The show, like a few others in MacFarlane’s catalog, would have to put up a fight to survive, mirroring the scrappy crew of characters fans have come to love aboard The Orville. And survive it did, with a new season on Hulu dubbed The Orville: New Horizons.

Yet there was something different about The Orville, especially this season. Something perhaps slightly more personal, or more of an investment for MacFarlane this time around. This truly seems to be a passion project, and certainly one he would continue for several seasons if he could. Coincidentally, the show, which has dealt with time travel and alternate realities, will have to simply imagine the possible paths that lie ahead for now, as it has not yet received a fourth season order.

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Den of Geek had the opportunity to speak with MacFarlane about the jump to Hulu, the recently wrapped powerhouse third season, and the possible fate of the show. 

Den of Geek: You’ve dealt with the possibility (and reality) of cancellation before, and even the resurrection of shows you’ve created. How are you handling the ride The Orville is taking you on in terms of the unknown future of the show?

Seth MacFarlane: You know, I’m used to shows that take a minute to be noticed, and I’m used to the waiting game at this point in my career. So while it could go either way, I remain optimistic. There’s a little bit of déjà vu here. I’m hoping that that’s a harbinger of good things to come.

When you knew you were going to enter these “New Horizons” this season, what was the short list of things that you and your creative team had as the major goals?

There wasn’t really a hard and fast agenda when it came to what we wanted to accomplish for the season. It was really something of an organic process that emerged through a lot of discussions in the writers’ room. We knew we wanted to remain an episodic show, but we knew we wanted to have a little bit more of a subtle throughline; a little bit of an arc that rewards the audience by the end of 10 episodes. Not to mention we’re on a streaming service as opposed to a network, so it was a bit of a “Goldilocks zone” that we wanted to occupy when it came to the style of storytelling. 

We mapped out the broad strokes of the season, individual character arcs and where people began and where they finished, but how we got from A to B was up in the air. That was the part of the show that we kind of let emerge as we started the writing process, without too much of a plan. So we allowed ourselves to meander a bit within the course of the season and still tell episodic stories, while making sure that we got from A to B in a way that felt like it had momentum and a clear structure.

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This season had a palpable gravitas to it, which paid off tremendously. Do you think this show and the seasonal arc would have been the same if you hadn’t made the jump to Hulu? Because it just seems like everything fell into place. 

This is certainly the season that felt like what I always wanted the show to be. I think the differences between what we were on Hulu and what we would have been on a network are pretty clear. You don’t have to dig too deep to figure out what those are. You certainly can’t do an episode that’s an hour and 20 minutes on a network – it would have to be a two-parter. So we really wrote our stories, the way they wanted to be written. 

It’s the only big complaint I have about the network model. You’re still based on a pre-existing time constraint that almost never works exactly for the story you’re trying to tell. A story takes the amount of time it takes to tell. Not every story is exactly 43 minutes long. It just depends on the story, and the story should dictate its duration as opposed to the format. 

That was the big difference with Hulu, and I think it was a pretty significant difference if in no other area than in tone. I feel like the tone of the show was very different on Hulu than it would have been on network. 

Speaking of that tone, the episodes that you personally wrote and directed were extremely heavy and often dealt with sensitive subjects. You’ve never been afraid to challenge your audience through humor. Did you find it a difficult shift to do so when you had to convey an appropriately dramatic tone?

Not really – I mean, I grew up in a very activist-oriented family. My parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, were all, in various ways, very proactive when it came to involvement in their communities, or when it came to social issues they cared deeply about, so those kinds of things weren’t really all that foreign to me. The [types] of stories that draw me in the most are stories that don’t have a clear moral compass to them, stories that present two sides of an issue, that are kind of murky and kind of muddy. Those are the most fun to write because then you [can] avoid the trap of getting too preachy. 

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When you step back and then write your dialogue, you can write different characters with equal conviction, because there really isn’t a clear answer to the problem. An episode like “Twice in a Lifetime”, which is a completely fictitious conundrum that would never happen, is a good example of that, because we created an utterly-imaginary moral dilemma that we then had to contend with. To me, those are the scripts that are the most fun to write, the ones where I’m prevented from being preachy by the very structure of what we’ve set up.

If I may go on record, I will say that I don’t think I can ever forgive Mercer and Grayson for what they did to Malloy in “Twice in a Lifetime.” I just want Gordon to be happy at this point. 

(Laughs) Here’s the interesting thing about that. You saw the life that he had, but you didn’t see the life that she would have had. That’s the thing that I haven’t seen commented on enough, is that the life that Gordon had with [Laura] was no more real than the life that she probably had in the prior timeline with this other guy. That and the kids that Laura had, were probably just as real as Gordon’s timeline. So it’s all about perception. We’re more attached to Gordon because we know him, and it’s a lot easier to sympathize with someone we know than with a complete stranger.

Excellent point. Speaking of possible futures, Mercer took a bit of a step back this season, perhaps because you were directing more often. This has created some concern within The Orville community that since you’re such an insanely busy individual, and you’re currently producing several projects right now, that you may have to focus on other projects. If The Orville could continue indefinitely, but it sadly meant that you couldn’t be a part of it, would you make that sacrifice for the show?

I mean, that’s a tough one. I don’t quite know how that would work. I look at the stories that Mercer had this season, [episodes] like “Gently Falling Rain”, which is a pretty intense story for him, and certainly in “Midnight Blue”, there were a handful of moments for Ed that were significant, but I’ve always seen this show as an ensemble piece. If a story itself suggests that it needs to put the focus on any one of our nine characters, that’s the character that has to carry that episode. There’s no math to it. I don’t go into it making sure that Ed has a certain amount of screen time, or Kelly has a certain amount of screen time. It just kind of shakes out that way. 

That’s one of the things I love about an ensemble show. It just so happened to turn out that Ed was a little light this year. He was almost put in this “F.D.R. position” where he was sitting back and putting his team and their respective expertise in the right place at the right time to get a certain mission completed. 

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It takes so much to put The Orville together, and there’s just a willpower that is required. I think I would probably have to be there just to see that it got done (laughs). There isn’t a scenario where I would be interested in seeing it move ahead without me – I love doing it too much.

It is certainly safe to say the show wouldn’t be the same without you. 

Well, there are a lot of questions right now. Orville has had an uphill battle just because of perception. There are a lot of people out there who think it’s a sitcom, or think it’s something like Family Guy, and of course, that’s not true. That’s the show’s big hurdle. Once people see it and give it a chance, 9.9 times out of 10, from my observation, they’re hooked. It’s getting them in the door that’s the challenge because we’re not an established franchise. We’re not Star Wars, we’re not Marvel, we’re something new. That’s kind of a rarity of this landscape. If you’re something new, you go into things with a bit of a disadvantage. But I’ve watched the growth from season one to now and have been incredibly encouraged by it. That’s what kept me going. 

With the season finale of this third season, it really felt as though it were one part season finale and perhaps two parts series finale. Was that specifically the aim, and if so, if this were the series finale, are you happy with the journey that The Orville got to take?

Well, that’s exactly what it was. We didn’t know, and still don’t know what our fate was going to be. So we wrote this to be partially open-ended and yet partially closed. That’s a tough balance. If this is it, then [we got] a beautiful wedding ceremony that you’d see at the end of a romantic comedy. If we do season four, Claire is now married to Isaac, and that’s a fact of daily life that we will embrace. It can work either way and is a hybrid of sorts.

If we’re lucky, The Orville reaches a stage where we do multiple uninterrupted seasons, and we can end the season knowing that we’re moving into the next. But this was designed to be a wrap up for the season – a bit of an open-ended piece of narrative that allows the various characters any possible number of futures. At the same time, we wanted to tie things up in a nice little bow as much as we could in case we didn’t get picked up.

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All three seasons of The Orville are available to stream on Hulu and Disney+.