I was wrong about Seth MacFarlane.
Until recently, I've never thought of myself as a MacFarlane fan—whether it was Family Guy or Ted or A Million Ways to Die in the West, his TV shows and movies never worked for me, and something about him just... rubbed me the wrong way? (It happens sometimes!) Even when MacFarlane was involved with stuff I loved (he had a key role in bringing 2014's great Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey to the screen, and he popped up in Steven Soderbergh's fantastic Logan Lucky), I grudgingly noted his involvement with a fair amount of crankiness.
Then he made The Orville.
Now starting its second season, MacFarlane's The Orville is a bewildering thing: First and foremost, it's both an homage and a spiritual successor to Star Trek: The Next Generation, echoing that show all the way from its high concepts to its flat lighting. (Notably, multiple creators from Next Generation, and a slew of former Star Trek cast members, play big parts in and on The Orville.) But it's also a show that fully embraces the awkward genre of the dramedy, with MacFarlane playing Ed Mercer, a self-doubting starship captain who's as likely to crack a joke as he is to give a speech about humanism and exploration.
Meanwhile, the goings-on aboard the starship Orville range from interstellar crises to dating mishaps. As the Orville and its likable, diverse crew zips around the galaxy, the show's tone can change as quickly as the ship's location: Sometimes you've got a quippy episode about high jinx onboard an alien battle cruiser, and sometimes you're in for a quiet hour of drama as characters hole up in the Orville's bar and question each other and themselves. More often, you've got a mix of both in the same episode. Behind Ed's captain's desk is a shelf that holds leather-bound books and a miniature Orville; on his desk is a model of the Wright brothers' Wright Flyer and a stuffed Kermit the Frog.
The Orville also does something that's fallen out of favor with a lot of contemporary sci-fi: addressing social issues with allegory so thin that it might as well be a rubber ridge glued to a Star Trek actor's forehead. In its first season and the first few episodes of its second, the show's explored porn addiction, call-out culture, religious extremism, anti-vaxxers, and sex reassignment surgery; while I wouldn't call any of those explorations tremendously in-depth or groundbreaking, they aren't dashed-off or careless, either. There's something that feels unexpectedly weighty and rewarding about seeing a generally lighthearted show on primetime network TV wrestle with topics that other shows go out of their way to ignore.
McFarlane's appearance earlier this month on WTF with Marc Maron was—at least for me—similarly entertaining and insightful, with MacFarlane and Maron talking politics and perspective as much as comedy, and MacFarlane coming across as nothing if not earnest. And I don't mean "earnest" in a snide or dismissive way, but in a good way: He legitimately seems like a guy who cares about what he's creating, whether that's comedy or drama or music.
Making TV shows and movies is hard work; I don't doubt MacFarlane has always cared about what he's doing, and I also have no doubt he couldn't care less about what people like me might've thought about that time he hosted the Oscars. But with The Orville, MacFarlane's passion and vulnerability are clearly evident—this is a show that feels open and honest in both its geekiness and its good intentions.
I've always been a Star Trek nerd, so that's what made me first watch The Orville. But what I've found is a show that might not be perfect, but it's trying, and, more often than not, it's succeeding. It feels kinda old, kinda new, kinda like a workplace comedy, and kinda like a sci-fi drama—and at all of those things, it's much, much better than it needs to be. That's what's keeping me watching.
Also, sometimes there are Billy Joel songs. So it's got that going for it, too.