In many way, The Orville might be the TV series that Seth MacFarlane has always wanted to create. His longtime love of science fiction, especially genre cornerstones like Star Trek and Star Wars, has permeated all his other work, none more so than Family Guy, but behind the good-humored parodying he’s deployed there and other places is a genuine reverence for the genre. With The Orville, which he created and stars in, he’s launching not just a full-on sci-fi series that’s a tricky mix of comedy and melodrama, but also his first live-action show — not to mention his first live-action starring role on TV.
The Orville is set 400 years in the future, when Earth has overcome most of its problems and belongs to a Federation-like galactic organization known as the Planetary Union. MacFarlane stars as Captain Ed Mercer, who’s been waiting for a command and finally gets one with the Orville, a mid-level exploratory ship that’s not exactly top of the line but will at last get Mercer back into space. He may soon wish he didn’t go, however, since the First Officer assigned to the ship is Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) — Mercer’s ex-wife whom he divorced after catching her in bed with an alien.
When we sit down with MacFarlane recently on the set of The Orville at the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, he acknowledges that a show like this had been on his mind for some time. “I think it’s good that I waited as long as I did to do a show like this,” he explains. “I have wanted to do a show like this from the second I came out to Hollywood, but the experience of working in television for the number of years that I have has made it a little bit more of an achievable goal to do it right at this point. It’s a tricky balance to walk, because we’re an hour-long show, and thus the character relationships, the stakes of the story, the drama, all that has to be serviced the way it would in a traditional drama, but at the same time you gotta have this comedy glaze, and that’s been a challenge.”
MacFarlane holds up M*A*S*H, along with shows like All in the Family, as prime examples of the kind of balancing act he’s talking about. “The one show that really did that right over the course of television history is M*A*S*H,” he says. “All in the Family and the Norman Lear shows really kind of walked that line beautifully, but again those were half-hour shows, and for an hour there really is a duty to service the other side of things as well. So we’re kind of trying to exist in this Goldilocks zone, and I think we’ve managed to straddle the line pretty well, but it remains to be seen.”
As if doing a spacebound, effects-heavy sci-fi show that’s half funny and half serious isn’t difficult enough, The Orville is also bucking the current television trend by not being serialized. Like the shows MacFarlane grew up watching, The Orville’s 13-episode first season will consist mainly of standalone stories. “I miss that style of storytelling on TV,” he admits. “Everything now is a soap (opera) that asks me to invest in a story from day one. I mean, look, there’s a handful of great shows that earn it, but with most shows it always feels a little pretentious. It’s like, you haven’t given me a reason yet to want to come back to hang out with these characters each week…it takes a little bit for a show to find what it is, for all of us, and I do miss that, and to me it’s a lot harder.
“When I watch The Twilight Zone, that’s one of the things that always keeps me in awe about that show,” he continues. “They had to basically reinvent the wheel every week. They had to come up with something brand new every week, they couldn’t just stretch the soup and continue with the through line and tread water if they wanted to one week. They had to tell you a story every week. It’s a challenge to start from scratch every week and make the show feel like a little movie, but for me as a viewer, it’s when I, in many ways, feel the most rewarded.”
MacFarlane cites episodes like Seinfeld’s “The Puffy Shirt” or the classic Twilight Zone segment “Time Enough at Last” as the kind of specific, standout stories that are not really endemic to serialized storytelling. “They’re moments, but they’re moments that you remember,” he says. “I miss it, and I barely see any of it in hour-long drama. I see a lot of it in comedy, but everything in hour-long drama is serialized. This was a deliberate choice for this show, that you should be able to watch episode 3 and episode 6 independent of each other, and each one will feel like you’re watching a little movie.”
While MacFarlane, who’s best known for the many voices he does on his animated shows, has acted before (most recently in Logan Lucky), The Orville will mark the first time that he plays the starring role in a live-action TV show. Does this mean that we’ll get to see more of MacFarlane himself in the character of Ed Mercer? “There are elements of myself that I put into the character,” he reveals. “There are things that he would do, and that he is capable of, that I’m not, because these people do have to be good at their jobs. It’s been challenging, but it’s been, I think ultimately for me, what I set out to do.”
He adds before we wrap up, “I’ve certainly learned a lot, and the character and the show are both what they were intended to be. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.”
The Orville premieres this Sunday (September 10) at 8pm on Fox, with new episodes to follow on Thursday nights.