When Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville debuts tonight, viewers may feel like the show has been beamed down from a previous generation. That’s by design.
MacFarlane — the man behind Family Guy, the Ted movies, and other gleefully crass comedies — turns out to be a bit of a nostalgist who misses the days when spaceships were warm and inviting. Yet he still wants The Orville to keep a foot firmly planted in the present, and plans to mix comedic moments with earnest explorations of hot-button topics of the day. Oh, and he’s looking to do it all with amazing, cinema-worthy special effects.
How will he pull off all these ambitions? We talked to him to find out.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the beginning. What was the genesis of this project? When did this come to your mind?
SETH MACFARLANE: You know what, I’d always been a fan of this genre, and I had always wanted to do a show like this. The reason I came out to Hollywood, in reality, was more to do a show like this than anything I’ve done in the past. It’s something that’s been in my head in one form or another for a number of years, and the timing just never seemed right until now for a number of reasons. You know, an hourlong show is an entirely different beast as far as writing is concerned. And also audience-wise, it seems like only in the past six or seven years or so that people have been receptive to the mix of sci-fi, adventure, and comedy.
Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool have found that happy balance that was elusive for a while, but no one’s really tried it yet on TV at this scale. A lot of sci-fi these days is very dark. It’s very operatic. It takes itself so seriously, and at the end of the day, we are an hourlong drama, but there’s a very heavy comedy through-line in each episode that hopefully will give it a tone that feels kind of new to people.
Was that something you were kind of emphatic about with this project, it being an hour long and having that mixed tone as opposed to straight sitcom?
I sort of look at the ’90s as kind of the golden age of sci-fi drama, I think. I really miss episodic storytelling in that genre. Even going back as far as The Twilight Zone, the fact that each installment makes its own point and tells its own story, and you’re not being asked to follow a serialized through-line over the course of an entire season. That each one feels like its own little movie, that’s something that’s just very much absent from that genre on TV and from television in general, and I kind of miss it.
You really only see it in comedy anymore. Even then, only in a handful of shows, but we really wanted to treat each episode like its own little movie. And yeah, it was important that it be an hour. I wouldn’t want to do a half-hour sci-fi comedy. It would be too light. I mean, half the fun of this is pushing ourselves to write stories that really stand on their own, hopefully even without the jokes — and the jokes are just sort of a bonus.
Obviously with any sort of sci-fi show, particularly on TV, special effects cane be make-or-break in terms of audience enjoyment. Were you confident before undertaking this project that you’d be able to live up to a satisfying visual standard?
Look, it’s always budget. That’s always the issue, and Fox acknowledged that this needed to play by the same rules as an hourlong drama. So they did step up, and we’ve taken that really seriously. A lot of the Orville fly-by shots are physical models. It’s the way they used to do the Star Wars movies in the ’70s and ’80s.
And we’re taking that as seriously as if we were doing a movie. I think you have to. I remember when we were doing Ted, and I said to my DP, you know, I don’t want this movie to have any special treatment because it’s a comedy. It should look as good as if it were the most serious drama imaginable, and I think with a show like this, it has to play by those rules every day. The effects have to be taken seriously. You really have to make people believe that that world exists, even with the comedic element.
You have an extensive background in visual arts. What were some of the elements you knew what you wanted to have?
The one thing that was really important to me as far as costumes, and particularly sets, was that this feel like a place you wanted to be in. I’m so tired of spaceships where they don’t turn on the f—ing lights and you feel like you’re on a submarine. I don’t want to be there every week, and that was the one thing that kind of struck me about what Star Trek was doing in the ’90s, and what stayed with me really more than anything else — it didn’t feel like a spaceship so much as it felt like it was a Four Seasons.
And that was very unusual and really probably the most realistic depiction I’ve seen, because if you were out in space for a long period of time, you’d go crazy if you were on something as dark and dismal as most of what you see. It would have to be designed for extreme comfort and extreme sustainability, or you’d start losing your mind. So it’s a combination of what, to me, is the realism of that concept. And also, I mean, I like the Kramdens’ apartment, but I’d rather be in the Friends apartment.
If you’re tuning in each week, you know, it was really important that we depict a future that is a place that you want to live in, and that goes to costumes too. I mean, rather than drab monochrome, we said, no, let’s make it colorful. Let’s make it something that’s inviting to the eye, and that’s something that we tried to keep throughout the aesthetic of every visual aspect of this show.
You mentioned Star Trek, and obviously that’s an influence, as are works like Galaxy Quest. What other shows served as inspiration?
You know, weirdly, the one that I always look to as brass ring and sort of what you shoot for with a show like this, believe it or not, is M.A.S.H. Like, that was a show that had to contend with a laugh track and was clearly a comedy, but at the same time, was so brilliant at walking the line between comedy and drama, and getting away with it, and you never felt like they were stepping out of their box, because their box was so big. That show to me is … when I think about what I would love for this show to achieve the balance of, it’s really M.A.S.H.
All the female officers on the show are referred to as “sir.” Is that a reference to something, or is there an internal logic to that on the show?
You know, it’s just sort of a general title. I mean, there’s always something kind of odd about saying “ma’am.” It always sounds like you should be holding a mint julep when you’re addressing a superior officer as “ma’am.” So, I mean, and Star Trek used to do it. I don’t know if it originated with them, but it was always their solution to that same thing. It’s just making “sir” a universal title. Whether it’s male or female, that’s how you address a superior officer. So it’s something we just kind of went with.
Clearly we’ll be exploring space a lot, but how much Earth-bound drama or action will we see?
Without giving anything away, we deal with certain things in certain ways, but other than those times we see New York, we don’t actually visit Earth in the first season. I’m racking my brain trying to remember if I missed anything, but as far as I can remember, we’re in space for the whole season.
Got it. Are we at least going to see anything from our solar system, or is it all out there into the galaxy, into the rest of the universe?
At the moment, it’s all outside the Oort cloud. It’s beyond our solar system. You know, if we do more and we’re able to go back there, there was one or two stories that we had kicked around that brought us back to Earth, but at the moment, it’s all, you know, beyond the solar system.
What’s the worst or most effed-up planet we’ll be seeing this season?
Probably Earth. [laughs]
Funny you say that — Family Guy obviously has the ability to address very current events, which it does regularly. Will The Orville be as reflexive in that sense?
In its own way. I mean, good science fiction does not ignore current events and sociopolitics and things like that. So it doesn’t go about them as directly as a comedy like Family Guy, but it goes about it in a more allegorical way. I always feel that that’s the duty of science fiction to comment on those kinds of things. So yeah, you will be seeing allegorical references to plenty of stuff that’s going on today. You just have to sniff it out a little bit more.
The Orville premieres tonight, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.