Seth MacFarlane made a name for himself through the success of his animated series Family Guy, which in turn led to two further animated series (The Cleveland Show and American Dad!) and aided him in making his way to the big screen with Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Ted 2. A few years ago, however, MacFarlane went in a surprising direction, debuting the hour-long sci-fi series The Orville.
Although it began its run with Fox focusing its promotional campaign on what we’ll call the more MacFarlane-esque aspects of the series, viewers who took a shot on The Orville quickly discovered that it was actually a loving homage to Star Trek, and while it took some time for the series to truly find its footing, the payoff for those who stuck with it has been tremendous. Indeed, when the show concluded its third season, there was an immediate call by fans and more than a few critics to renew the show for another season
Whether we’ll see a Season 4 of The Orville remains to be seen, but with the show having just been added to the Disney+ lineup, MacFarlane decided to dive headlong into a round of additional publicity for the show, giving Decider the opportunity to ask about the evolution of the series over the course of its run, the highlights of Season 3 – including an unexpected country music cameo – and much more.
DECIDER: I’ve really been enjoying the run of The Orville thus far, and I’m hoping that it’s not over by any means.
SETH MACFARLANE: So are we! [Laughs.] That’s what we’re hoping, too!
I’m curious: what were the challenges involved in the series’ evolution over the course of these three seasons? I feel like there was a turning point somewhere in the second season that made it feel almost like it was a completely different series.
Yeah, that was something that… [Hesitates.] A writer said to me at one point in my career, “You don’t find your show. Your show finds you.” And that’s kind of what happened with The Orville. It set out to do one thing, and it quickly became clear that the show really wanted to be something else. And I think fairly early on in Season 2 it made that shift, and Season 3 really felt like we were hitting the ground running. Like, we knew exactly what we were, we weren’t trying to be something that felt like a square peg in a round hole, we were just allowing our characters to be true to who they were and not have to worry about peppering in jokes every page. The jokes would come when they came, and…that’s still a part of the show, but it’s not something that we were going to force in.
When the show first started, was there any sort of edict from Fox that they wanted to make it more of a Seth MacFarlane show than a sci-fi show?
Maybe a little bit. But, really, only a little. I don’t remember… I mean, I read a lot of that online — speculation that Fox demanded Family Guy in space — but they really did not. They were really generally supportive of what the show was. The only objection I had was that the show was launched as a hard comedy. They really leaned into the jokes. And that was part of it, so that’s not all their fault, but they leaned into the jokes and the comedy to a disproportionate degree. And they really presented it as a sitcom in space, which it wasn’t. It was a show that was attempting to tell serious sci-fi stories while cracking jokes at the same time, and…that’s not really something that is sustainable hand in hand on a television series. I think in a movie it is. I think you can do that for an hour and a half. But to keep people coming back and to really make them believe that these stakes are real, the characters have to believe that the stakes are real, and if the characters believe that the stakes are real, the characters aren’t going to be making jokes when the stakes are high. And that’s just the fundamental math of it. So we stopped pressuring ourselves to try and make this thing something it wasn’t and said, “Hey, we have eight or nine fantastic characters, and we’re just going to let them be who they are.”
Well, it felt like if there was a distinct turning point, it was with “Identity” in Season 2.
Yeah, and that was an episode that was tense for us, because we didn’t know if people would accept the show in that way. You know, we were telling a dark two-part science-fiction story, and we didn’t know if people were gonna go for it. Half of me was expecting a sort of “stay in your lane” sort of reaction. And it wasn’t that at all. It was the opposite! People loved it. They were some of the most popular episodes of the season up to that point. And what was gratifying and unnerving about that was that we’d already written the rest of the season, and we’d kind of kept Isaac in the background so we didn’t have to deal with the fallout, just in case people hated it. So we kind of avoided the fallout of that story, and I remember reading comments online from fans two episodes afterwards – I think it was around the time of “Lasting Impressions” – where people were saying, “Really? There’s still no discussion of Isaac? He almost got everybody killed!” So in Season 3, right off the bat, Charlie was the voice of that section of the fandom, who was there to say, “Hey, guys! Yes, this guy saved us, but he’s also the reason that the people died and that we even had to be saved, and you just let him sit on that bridge like nothing happened!” So that was a direct result of really paying attention to the audience’s reaction. One of my favorite things to do is just dive deep into online reactions from fans of the show after the airings and decide what I want to pay attention to and what I want to ignore. And, really, in Season 3, in many different ways, the voice of the fans can be heard.
Now, when you go online, do you wear a bulletproof vest and fireproof underwear? How do you prepare for that?
Hey, at this point in my career, I’m well prepared. [Laughs.] You know, I go in with realistic expectations. But Season 3 has been great! Because, look, 75-80% of what I’ve read has been positive, and it’s been really gratifying. There’s such a groundswell of support for the show. And, of course, you can have people who don’t like individual episodes…and, by the way, you want that! There was a bit of a bump in episode six, “Twice in a Lifetime,” in which John says, “Gordon arrived about a month ago,” and a number of fans pointed out correctly that if they plucked Gordon out of the past before he sent the message to the future to come get him, they would never have had any reason to go back and get him, and it would’ve created a paradox. And that was 100% right. So we went back in and did a piece of loop after air and resubmitted the show to Hulu…and I don’t know if it’s up on the platform yet or not, but if not, it will be soon! So that kind of stuff… Look, you have your nose deep in this stuff forever, and you think you’ve crossed all your T’s and dotted all your I’s, but it’s nice to have an audience that’s engaged enough to catch you if there’s something you missed.
I’ve read about it elsewhere online, but if you could talk a little bit about how difficult it was to pull off that Dolly Parton cameo appearance in “Midnight Blue,” it’s a story worth telling again.
It was a challenge because of COVID. At the time, people weren’t doing a whole lot of traveling, and we were in L.A., and Dolly was in Nashville. And we sent her the “Sanctuary” episode from Season 2, and I spoke with her and her wonderful right hand, Danny Nozell, who was just fabulously instrumental in making this all work out as well as just a great guy. And it all came together, but the one challenge was that we had to do it in Nashville.
So we built this cabin set, essentially sliced it in half, shipped half of it to Nashville. [director] John Cassar and I flew to Nashville, and we shot Dolly there. And Rena Owen, who plays Heveena, came with us, so she did her scenes with Dolly. So every time you’re looking in Dolly’s direction, even when you see the back of Rena’s head, that’s in Nashville. When you flip around and you see Heveena, that’s in L.A. And, of course, there’s a double for Dolly for the reverses. And it’s a testament to our lighting crew, to our production design crew, to everyone involved, that it’s just seamless. These two people are many states apart, and yet they look like they’re just two feet from each other. It all came together. And, of course, the visual effects team of The Orville, Brandon Fayette and his team, who recreated 1990 Dolly Parton through this new A.I. technology that everybody’s using. It was just all seamless. That was one that… It was a lot of hurdles to get there, and we just never gave up. [Laughs.]
We said, “We have got to do this. The only way the Heveena storyline in this episode works is with Dolly Parton. The only way.” I don’t know what we would’ve done if she hadn’t done the show, because the only thing that could get Heveena to do the right thing and to testify would be if none other than Dolly Parton gave her some sagely advice. And on top of getting her, Dolly of course was just so charming and so magnificent and just a centerpiece of that episode. And also, as you can imagine, the sweetest human being alive. So it was all great.
One of the spotlight stars of Season 3 was Imani Pullum as Topa.
I’m sure her early performances alone were enough to give you the confidence to spotlight her more as the series progressed.
Yes, completely. Although “Midnight Blue” and “Tale of Two Topas” were both written before we started shooting. All ten episodes were written before we shot a frame of film. So whoever was going to play Topa already had a big job ahead of them, but we found Imani, and Imani was very much a seasoned stage actor when she came on set, in that she was all about the work, she was so professional, she was so focused, she was so prepared, and… [Hesitates.] You never know what work an actor does preparing for a character, but whatever work she did on her own, boy, did it show onscreen. She just knocked that character out of the park, and I was so happy to see all the attention she got and all the positive response, because it was a challenge. I mean, that was a challenging character for any adult seasoned actor to play, and for her to knock it out of the park like that was extraordinary. And it was great for the show, because if it hadn’t worked, those episodes wouldn’t have… The stories would’ve fallen to pieces. So she carried those shows in a spectacular way, and we were all really proud of the work she did.
When you’re doing those episodes that are kind of paralleling real-world events, do you find it a challenge to not go too obvious with the parallel you’re trying to make? It’s got to be a delicate tightrope walk.
Yes. Very much so. [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s the biggest challenge when writing a show like this, particularly in this day and age, because… You know, sometimes we’re trying to make a point and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we’re observing. Sometimes when it seems like we’re trying to advance an agenda, it’s a little misleading, because it’s really us observing our society and describing what we see. That’s a much better way of putting it. And, of course, aside from the fact that nobody ever made their point or changed anyone’s mind by saying, “You’re stupid, and you should think this,” I try very hard when we’re dealing with these issue stories not to be preachy in a way that takes you out of the story. Now, if it fits with a character’s personality, that’s one thing. I mean, it felt very naturally for Kelly to take her position, it felt very natural for Klyden to take his position. But the characters have to be true to themselves. You don’t want to come at it in a spineless way. You don’t want to have no point of view. But at the same time, you want to present it in a thoughtful, convincing, smart way and not beat your audience over the head with it. So that’s one of the biggest challenges with this corner of sci-fi.
I felt like the only one that came close to treading over the line was “Gently Falling Rain,” with the whole populist thing. But when it switched over to focusing on Anaya more than that aspect of the story, it went down a bit more smoothly.
Yeah, but… Well, I would argue that the Krill are the darkest parts of us. And when I say “us,” I just mean us as a planet. That’s who the Krill are. I mean, populism is on the rise everywhere, not just in America, and it is something to be concerned about. I don’t know that there are a whole lot of instances throughout history of a noisy populist regime changing the world for the better. I think there are far many instances of them precipitating a cataclysmic turn of events. To me, that’s just common sense based on historical observation. But at the same time, again, we don’t want to beat people over the head with it. Your first duty is to entertain, and leave the hardcore political commentary to the pundits. But when you’re telling a story that has to do with an issue or has to do with something related to current events, you also can’t be spineless. You do have to have a point of view to your story.
So where do things stand with your other series? Your relationship with Fox… I know you’ve been relatively vocal about your less-than-positive feelings toward the company as a whole.
Yeah, I mean… [Sighs.] It’s complex. There are a lot of people there who, on a personal level, I really like a lot, and there are some decisions that have been made that I strongly disagree with. And that can be a tough thing to reconcile…and I haven’t at this point quite figured out how to reconcile it. Maybe at some point I will. Maybe I won’t. But at the moment it’s difficult. But obviously I’m also working on the Ted series at Peacock, which is coming along nicely. Look, the thing about the animated shows… I mean, Family Guy is very self-sustaining at this point. American Dad! is very self-sustaining. I’ve been a voiceover actor on those shows – and, really, that’s it – for quite some time now. The Orville has taken up most of my time. When I left to do [the film] Ted in…I guess 2012 or whenever that was, that’s when I left Family Guy and handed over the reins, and it’s been self-sustaining ever since. So my direct day-to-day involvement for the past couple of years has mostly been with Disney with The Orville and, more recently, with Universal for the Ted series and other projects. I have a diversified series of relationships with these companies, some better than others, but on a personal level, they’re all good.
To bring it back to The Orville, Season 3 delivers about as happy an ending as you possibly could’ve offered, but as noted, I still hope it’s not the end.
Yeah, all of us on the production feel the same way!
But right now, I guess it’s just in the hands of Disney at this point?
It really is. We dropped on Disney+ on August 10, which is very exciting. That’s going to hopefully expose the show to a whole new audience. And I think, really, that’s the biggest challenge with The Orville. When you sit down to watch The Orville and you give it a chance, I’m confident that it delivers. I’m confident that it pulls you in. The biggest challenge of the show is defying expectations. The fact that I’ve done all of these animated comedies and movies like Ted and A Million Ways to Die in the West… It’s such a left turn that it’s hard to break that logjam of expectations that people have about the show. In many cases, people think it’s a sitcom, based on its initial marketing campaign. But, of course, it’s something so radically different. And when people do give it a chance and sit down to watch the show, they’re almost invariably surprised and caught off-guard. “Oh, wow, this is completely the opposite of what I thought it was going to be…in a good way!” And I think if we can get enough of those folks giving us a chance, the rewards will be in the form of a Season 4 and perhaps beyond. So it’s really in the hands of the audience. Because it is a business. The show is expensive to produce, it needs to justify its own existence with audience enthusiasm and viewership. So hopefully Disney+ will give us that chance.
Will Harris (@NonStopPop) has a longstanding history of doing long-form interviews with random pop culture figures for the A.V. Club, Vulture, and a variety of other outlets, including Variety. He’s currently working on a book with David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. (And don’t call him Shirley.)