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'THE ORVILLE': A surprise hit

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Who is Seth MacFarlane? It’s a real surprise just how talented this man is. He began his career as an animator for Hanna-Barbera working on various series such as “Johnny Bravo,” “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Cow and Chicken.” After the success of prime-time animated shows “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” MacFarlane set out to create something relevant that would compete with these shows. In 1999, “Family Guy” hit the air and MacFarlane struck gold, giving way to his acting talents for voice work.

“Family Guy” became the springboard for more animated shows, such as “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show.” If you are familiar with these shows (how could you not with the endless syndicated re-runs?), then you are aware of the crude sophomoric humor mixed with typical life lessons learned in an exaggerated fashion. Some moments are gut-busting and others are cringe-worthy, but over all, each series is vastly popular.

For a time MacFarlane delved into the music industry, producing a handful of popular pop and swing albums in collaboration with Norah Jones and Sara Bareilles. He even won a few Grammys in the process.

So when the day came that “The Orville” was announced, everyone started scratching their heads. “The Orville” is largely inspired by “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” so much so that many critics gave the first season a failing grade as it felt more like a rip-off than an homage. Is it a rip-off? Yes, but in the most tongue-in-cheek way. MacFarlane inserts himself center stage as Capt. Mercer of the space exploration vessel the Orville. There is no animation. Special effects, yes, but no animation to hide behind.

MacFarlane felt stiff, but so did the whole show, as is the case with an ensemble cast. The first season struggled to find its bearing as it introduced various characters written to be parodies of their predecessors. Isaac, an artificial life form sent from his home planet to observe species behavior, is a perfect example. He is a robot without real facial features and relies on pure logic. Then there is Lt. Cmdr. Brotus, an intimidating character much like Worf from ST:TNG. He is part of a species that has a singular gender, gives birth by oviparity (laying eggs) and urinates once per year.

The similarities don’t stop there. The very intro is a virtual extension of the Star Trek canon from the early ‘90s. Strip away the logo, replace the ship with the Enterprise or Voyager and one would be hard-pressed to see any difference. The Federation is now the Planetary Union.

One distinct feature that does seem to be missing is a basic hand-held phaser, but holodecks are in use with the same arc design for entry and exit.

The storytelling is the same as well and usually centers around basic character-driven plots with feel-good endings filled with hope and pride but with a comedic flare. Even the large orchestrated music of ST:TNG is mimicked.

So, with all this direct linking, is the show any good? That really depends on your point of view. If you are looking for originality, best to give this show a pass, but if you want a return to the type of science fiction that captures not just your imagination but your heart, this is probably for you.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the first season 33 percent, but the second season has gained a strong foothold with 100 percent. It’s not just viewers who have caught on; even celebrities are making appearances much the same way they did on the Star Trek shows. The guest actor list grows with each episode of prosthetically hidden talents, including Rob Lowe, Norm Macdonald, Liam Neeson, Robert Picardo, Jason Alexander, Ted Danson, Patrick Warburton and Bruce Willis.

While the Star Trek canon still grows with movies and the online hit “Star Trek: Discovery,” “The Orville” is a surprise hit with audiences, and now critics, that is both a reminder not to forget our roots and a caution not to take those roots too seriously. If you haven’t jumped on board the Orville just yet, you can catch up right now on Hulu.

To reach Brian Fitz-Gerald, email him at bfitz-gerald@rosebudmedia.com.

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