Major effort went into first episodes this season, but now the coasting has begun. From comedies to dramas, from Hollywood to Pinewood, most every show runner in the English-speaking world put their best feet forward, then fell flat on their faces… except Seth MacFarlane of The Orville. He didn’t get to best effort until episode four, but like everyone else, he then fumbled, stumbled and fell.
So, let’s start with The Orville. I just did a quick Google to find out what Seth MacFarlane has done and realized something. I’ve never been a fan. The brand of comedy he aspires to with Family Guy, et al has never appealed to me.
Mean-spirited remarks and making fun of others just isn’t funny. That was lesson one where I learned about portraying humor as an actor. It wasn’t funny in high school and it isn’t funny now.
Lesson two was: mugging and banter don’t work either. That sort of humor smacks of stick figure drawings and fridge magnets. Maybe someone’s mom thought it was funny, but it has no place in mature comedy. Only one comedian in the entire history of TV ever pulled off the mugging bit and made it work and that’s Rowan Atkinson. But even he had to work at it for years before he figured out the difference between pulling a face and Mr. Bean’s unique contributions to humor.
Humor grows naturally from a situation. Humor is about misunderstandings, the irony of a character not knowing what’s going on (but the audience does), and character quirks. But bring in a second (and third) character to make fun of any of those things and suddenly we’re back in high school with the so-called cool kids picking on and making fun of the less fortunate, the outsiders, and those less in-the-know than themselves. That’s not funny, that’s bullying. And bullying ain’t funny no matter how you slice it.
In The Orville, we as audience are supposed to feel sorry for Seth MacFarlane’s character because his wife cheated on him. But come on. The guy’s privileged. How sorry am I supposed to feel for someone who’s handsome, holds the rank of captain and has connections up the wazoo? This isn’t a viewpoint character, someone an audience of geek science fiction fans can identify with. This is the guy who picked on us all in high school, stole our lunch money in grade school, and was born into a family who lavished its kids with all the good things in life. Nope, I simply can’t identify with someone like that.
So, when Captain Mercer walks in on his wife in bed with an alien, my first thought was: Ha! Serves you right, dickhead. And all I knew for sure about him at that moment was that he was a handsome starship captain. The rest I could fill in from all the times I’ve met such people in real life.
And what about Porters?
Simon, the main character (as well as Porters’ flimsy viewport character) started off as a fish out of water (the irony of not knowing what’s going on) and I was willing to overlook Edward Easton’s self-conscious, self-effacing approach to the character because I wanted to give him time to outgrow that. Eventually, I assumed, Rutger Hauer would knock some sense into him and he’d stop pretending to act the role.
But in episode two of Porters, the writers took a turn in the wrong direction. The Simon character became a two-faced liar and cheat willing to do whatever it took to get into Nurse Lucy’s pants. How is an audience supposed to resolve that? He’s our way into the story. He’s the one we’ll identify with as he learns the ropes of portering in a hospital.
But suddenly, Simon’s the despicable one, the ass we’d all turn our backs on if we knew him in real life. As soon as Simon promised his kidney to the dying kid, I knew he’d never go through with it and I stopped caring what happened to him.
And another thing became painfully obvious about Porters (the series, not the real porters working in hospitals all over the world). The show runner, I guarantee, has never worked in a hospital, as a porter or anything else. The premise promised to show us what it was like to be the lowest of the low in that world. It was going to be a journey from ignorance to knowledge, to see how these overlooked people are important in their own right to the everyday running of a hospital. And it was going to show us this with humor borne of being in that position. But it didn’t.
Comedy is a funny thing… and I can’t decide if saying so is irony or a pun or just a bad joke. When the underprivileged make fun of their lot in life, that can be funny. And when the privileged make fun of themselves, that can be funny, too. But push either one to the point of self-consciousness and it’s sheer drudgery to watch. And when the privileged make fun of the underprivileged, that’s just an extension of the high school ecosystem where bullying is the norm and the only ones who remember that fondly are the bullies.