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‘The Orville’ Is Back for Season 3. But How Does It Fit Into a New Space TV Landscape?

Seth MacFarlane’s comedy-drama returns after three years away. But the television environment it joins now is not the same one it left at the end of Season 2.

Hulu/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It would’ve been so easy for The Orville not to come back. Over two brief seasons, the spacefaring comedy-drama had generated solid but unremarkable reviews and ratings. Its creator and star, Seth MacFarlane, had other irons in the fire—Family Guy, American Dad!, a TV adaptation of the Ted movies. Fox had already shuffled two seasons around the calendar, and plans for a third were put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted production. And in 2020, MacFarlane, whose animated shows had been tentpole programming at Fox for decades, split with his longtime corporate bosses and inked a $200 million deal with NBC.

But like its plucky namesake starship, last seen dodging laser beams during a climactic set-piece battle, The Orville has survived for a third season.

“It’s the most fun writing job I’ve ever had,” MacFarlane told me recently over Zoom. “I love telling these stories, and it’s a wonderful group of people I love working with.”

The forthcoming season, which premieres on Hulu June 2 and is subtitled New Horizons, marks a bit of a shift for the series. The crew composition continues to evolve, with Anne Winters joining the cast as a young navigator. And MacFarlane says the move to Hulu comes with a more “cinematic” visual style. But the biggest adjustment comes not from within the show’s universe, but in the real world’s streaming TV landscape.

When The Orville, which mimics the style and many of the conventions of Star Trek, premiered in 2017, there had been six official Star Trek shows released in the previous 51 years. In less than five years since, CBS All Access and Paramount+ have aired six more, including four that premiered in the three years since The Orville finished Season 2. And the Star Trek shows have had to compete against a constellation of socially conscious spacefaring dramas: big streaming swings like For All Mankind, The First, and Away, and later seasons of The Expanse, among others.

Given all that, the biggest question for The Orville entering its third season is this: Is there still a place for this show when space—and Star Trek in particular—is busier than it’s ever been?

The Orville, in its premise, setting, visual language, and choice of subject matter, is a Star Trek show in all but name. Even some of its senior creative figures, like executive producers Brannon Braga and David A. Goodman, are Trek veterans—though they often try to soft-pedal the similarities between projects. When I asked Braga and Goodman what they’d learned from their previous experience, Goodman laughed and said, “Wait, Brannon worked on Star Trek?”

The last time MacFarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer and his crew signed off, they held an interesting place in that wider universe. The history of Star Trek has many fault lines and watershed moments, but one of the biggest came between Star Trek: Enterprise’s ending in 2005 and the J.J. Abrams–directed Star Trek reboot four years later. Before that point, Star Trek had mostly revolved around one premise: Presented with a problem, how would the best of humanity react? The original series and The Next Generation got hundreds of hours worth of mileage out of this setup. And because of creator Gene Roddenberry’s intractable opposition to serialization, these shows became mind-bendingly successful in syndication.

After Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the writers of the various Star Trek series got a little more freedom to experiment, particularly on Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, which began to portray a darker, more cynical side of humanity over longer story arcs. Deep Space Nine introduced an organization called Section 31, which in small doses hinted at a hidden and mostly unremarked-upon cost to maintaining Roddenberry’s sometimes cartoonishly optimistic secular humanist utopia.

The rebooted movies, and particularly Paramount’s new crop of TV shows, took Deep Space Nine’s spicy twist and embraced it—juiced it, more like—until Star Trek was just like any other sci-fi franchise. If Deep Space Nine added much-needed seasoning to a classic dish, parts of Discovery and especially Picard made the entire meal out of salt.

Against that context, The Orville was a refreshing return to the original premise: mostly episodic, overwhelmingly hopeful, socially conscious middlebrow sci-fi.

“The thing I think was important to bring in [from Star Trek] was the type of storytelling,” Braga told me, “which was stand-alone stories, well told, driven by this high concept, with a certain optimistic spirit and a certain depiction of the future.”

When I reviewed The Orville’s first few episodes five years ago, I confronted it as a combination of parody and homage, the work of a comedian playing with beloved storytelling conventions. But MacFarlane and Braga never intended The Orville to be a parody; two seasons in, it’s become more of a pastiche.

“We never approached it as a satire or a parody, which I think would have been the immediate assumption, seeing Seth’s name on it,” Braga said. “The story always came first and the comedy—Seth says it’s comedy frosting—was part of it, but it wasn’t the main driver.”

“That was part of the paradigm from day one,” MacFarlane said. “The story has to work as a story, and then you can hang a bunch of jokes on it and you’re fine. With this show, it was really about finding the tone. The tone, to me, started to really come together at the end of Season 1, and then developed even more fully in Season 2.”

The tone MacFarlane refers to is an intriguing mix of old-school Star Trek’s resolute moral seriousness and a heavy dollop of goofy humor. The crew of The Orville, especially Captain Mercer, are well-intentioned but definitely not the best and brightest. They bicker over inane problems, they play pranks, they go to work hungover, and they carry out multiyear running gags about having to pee.

In one of the best episodes of Season 2, “Sanctuary,” the crew encounters a colony of female aliens from a heavily patriarchal species. Mercer invites the alien leader to peruse the ship’s collection of art created by the women of Earth, and she immediately seizes on Dolly Parton as Earth’s great feminist poet, who “speaks with the might of 100 soldiers. …This is the voice of our revolution.” Minutes later, there’s a climactic gunfight set to “9 to 5.”

It’s silly, but the jokes are in service of a narrative and a message. And while MacFarlane admits the show struggled to strike the right balance between story and humor early on, he cited the most recent episode of Black Mirror, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” as an inspiration for The Orville going forward, praising its blending of serious sci-fi and “rompish” comedy.

“The idea in Season 3 was to really lean into that,” MacFarlane said. “That tone is to not lose what’s funny about these characters, but make sure that it’s also real, that we’re not writing a sci-fi story and then surgically looking for spots to add jokes, which was kind of what we were doing at the beginning of Season 1. We stopped pressuring ourselves to do that and really let the story take precedence.”

That turned out to be the key to unlocking The Orville’s potential and the key to appreciating it for what it is: a drama, occasionally interrupted by jokes.

“I was known as the king of torture on 24,” said Jon Cassar, who directed, among other Orville episodes, last season’s two-part “Identity” and the Season 3 premiere “Electric Sheep.” “Comedy wasn’t at the forefront. I think I said that: ‘Really? You really want me to do this show? This is a Seth MacFarlane show.’ And I remember them saying, ‘Drama first.’ We want to play this like a straight-up one-hour drama. That’s the most important thing.”

As MacFarlane’s show filled a lane left open by the Abrams movies and Discovery, though, Paramount delivered a rapid-fire response with several new Star Trek series. They dug Anson Mount’s Captain Pike and the Enterprise out of the vault for Strange New Worlds, which returns to the franchise’s original episodic format and wide-eyed tone. And because there’s so much humor to be mined from watching C+ students deal with problems of galactic importance, Paramount+ has ordered two additional seasons of the animated series Lower Decks to go with the two that have already aired. For two seasons, The Orville gave Star Trek diehards something they couldn’t get on first-run TV. Now there’s competition.

“Up until very recently, we were the only show that was occupying anything near that space and tone in sci-fi,” MacFarlane said. “I think even now The Orville is very much in its own space. It’s got its own vibe. But [how the show holds up to the competition is] not decided by us. That’s decided by the viewers.”

Even among all that noise, MacFarlane still believes The Orville offers something unique. And at the end of our conversation, he touched on the quality that makes the show work.

“It really is still about these people,” MacFarlane said. “On any show you tune in to watch the people. Are these people I want to hang with each week?”

For all the aliens and special effects and wild makeup you’d expect from Star Trek, what makes these shows successful is that viewers like spending an hour a week with the crew. Many years ago, my colleague Brian Phillips praised The Next Generation by writing, “the show offers a fantasy of smart friends working together and supporting each other that’s designed to make you want to join them.” That’s true of every successful Star Trek show, and why the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio is one of television’s most beloved friendships, or why Avery Brooks’s portrayal of Ben Sisko still resonates a generation later.

The crew of The Orville is … mostly not that smart, but they’re still a part of that tradition. And Season 3 promises to test that family dynamic as the crew deals with the aftermath of a war with the robotic Kaylon. Among the survivors is The Orville’s science officer, Isaac, who after being sent to study humanity, decided to side with his flesh-and-blood friends against his people. Winters’s character, by contrast, comes to The Orville after suffering immense personal losses in the war and struggles to adjust to sharing the bridge with a Kaylon.

As much as The Orville chimes in on contemporary political issues through allegory, though, it’s always been at its best when the original question of the series—how do normal people stand up to extraordinary circumstances?—is at the forefront.

“The very first time we all met together collectively, Seth said we’re doing a science-fiction piece, but what we are is people who happen to be in space,” said Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays Dr. Claire Finn. “We’ve always been people first, and it’s on the page. We lift the words and emotions off the page so viewers can enjoy and be a part of it. … It truly helps to like your fellow cast.”

“We have a group chat,” said Adrianne Palicki, who plays first officer Kelly Grayson. “We are always constantly in contact with each other, which is a rarity on any show, especially after you’ve wrapped.”

That chemistry gives the crew of the Orville an unexpected warm and fuzzy tone, almost reminiscent of Ted Lasso. (Perhaps if American TV viewers had latched onto this band of endearingly semi-competent work buddies instead, internet discourse wouldn’t be so hysterical. Dare to dream.) And they somehow manage to portray that earnestness without coming off as cloying or phony.

“A lot of television I see is a lot more dark and gritty in its interpersonal relationships and depictions thereof,” MacFarlane said. “I live in a pretty intense industry. I don’t go to work every day and fight with my coworkers and get into spats and deal with high drama. It’s actually pretty pleasant. So I don’t think it’s that unrealistic.”

Thanks to streaming and a bucket-of-crabs-type scramble for corporations to gobble up franchises and squeeze every last drop of blood from every stone, the viewers that MacFarlane defers to have never had more options for spacefaring drama and action. But watching a TV show is ultimately a question of time commitment. In terms of storytelling and visuals, The Orville holds its own with any of its contemporaries. But what makes an episodic TV show stick—including the older Star Trek series—is whether the characters are worth spending time with. Here, The Orville’s band of weirdos and misfits sets itself apart. You can go boldly wherever you want, as long as you like who you’re going with.