TV Review: The Orville Takes Alara “Home” For Her Final Episode

The Orville Home THE ORVILLE: L-R: Seth MacFarlane and Scott Grimes in the ÒHomeÓ episode of THE ORVILLE airing Thursday, Jan. 10 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2018 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: FOX

Alara gets her last hurrah in a shockingly well-rendered showcase for Halston Sage, saying goodbye to one of the show’s standout characters.

This piece was originally posted on Alcohollywood

Mind opening up this jar of pickles for me?” In the quippier, more sitcommy days of The Orville’s first season, this recurring gag from Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) to young, super-strong security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) was one of the few lines that actually worked. From the start, Alara has been one of the show’s standout characters, an endearingly earnest upstart who served as a perfect example of the Orville crew’s strengths – they’re some of the best in the fleet, but character flaws consistently hold them back. Gordon’s (Scott Grimes) an ace pilot, but doesn’t take his job seriously enough; Lamarr (J Lee) has a genius intellect, but dumbs himself down to fit in. As for Bortus (Peter Macon), well, we saw last week what Bortus’ weaknesses are.

Alara’s weakness is her insecurity – in any other setting, she’d be too young, too inexperienced to run the security team on a starship. But she’s from Xelaya, a planet with heavy gravity and a culture that values intellectualism over military service – her appointment to the Orville is as much a product of affirmative action as it is a testament to her super-strength in Earth gravity. That tokenism has stuck in her craw since the beginning; even last season’s “Firestorm” saw her enter a nightmare simulation to overcome her feelings of inadequacy for her position. In a crew full of mostly one-joke characters, hers shone from the beginning, which is what makes this week’s “Home” such a bittersweet hour: it’s a thrilling, emotional showcase for Alara, but with Sage leaving, it’s also her final episode.

“Home” is an Alara-heavy hour that sees her return… well, home to Xelayah after she learns that, due to prolonged absence from her planet’s gravity, she’s beginning to lose her super-strength. If she waits any longer, says Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), she’d never be able to return to her planet’s normal gravity. So she returns to rehabilitate under the care of her disapproving parents, Ildis (Robert Picardo) and Dranala (Molly Hagan), and her researcher sister Solana (Candice King). Alara’s the black sheep of the family, a soldier among scientists, and her time on the Orville has deepened the rift between her and her family (her helplessness illustrated further by the floating, futuristic wheelchair she must travel around in as she recovers). Her parents are masters at condescension and passive-aggressiveness (whose parents aren’t, really?), needling her to take classes to ‘catch up’ to her contemporaries on Xelayah. “Stop rooting for me to fail,” she stews at the dinner table.

Knowing this would be Alara’s last hurrah, “Home” puts Sage front and center, leaving the rest of the Orville crew largely behind to build up the relationship between her and the wonderful guest ensemble. Sage was always a little green around the gills, but that always informed her performance as Alara in intriguing ways, infusing the security chief with a deeply relatable vulnerability that made her victories feel even more rewarding. We’d seen Picardo and Hagan in a quick cameo in “Firestorm,” but it’s particularly nice to blend in the shades of their dynamic with Alara, and she with them. Sage and Picardo bounce particularly well off each other, Sage brimming with youthful pride and bitter resentment at her emotionally closed-off father for not encouraging her in her dreams – even if they went against the culture of their people. “I’m sorry I was such a project,” she snaps at Ildis in one particularly heated exchange.

While the show’s first half is full of this kind of interstellar kitchen-sink drama, “Home”’s second half turns the screws in ways unexpected of such a normally light show. In a premise straight out of Hitchcock, Alara’s recovery is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious couple (John Billingsley and Kerry O’Malley), the only others left on the island that contains the Kitans’ beach house. At first, they seem sweet – just perplexed by a possible break-in at their house (a mystery that intrigues the security-minded Alara). But they eventually show their true colors during a terrifyingly tense dinner party: they’re the parents of a young researcher who committed suicide after Ildis discredited his controversial, poorly researched work, and want to see his family pay for it. (That work? Claiming that a powerful vaccine caused a Xelayan health condition. That’s right, even on Xelayah, anti-vaxxers are a thing.)

For a show as easygoing and brightly rendered as The Orville, it’s genuinely surprising to see the show land these kinds of tonal turns. As soon as Billingsley’s affable smile turns into a frown as he forces Ildis to stick his hand in a pot of boiling sauce, “Home” becomes a cracking alien version of that old chestnut, the home invasion thriller. Thankfully, its familiar beats are elevated greatly by two great pros like Picardo and Billingsley (the Star Trek pedigree remains strong; both actors played ship’s doctors on Voyager and Enterprise, respectively). Billingsley plays a great sniveling baddie, and absolutely steals the hour’s climax. And, of course, this provides Alara with the perfect moment to literally (and figuratively) find her strength and save the day, earning her father’s respect in the process. “I don’t know you,” Ildis tearfully admits. “I never even tried to know you.”

And so, despite Dr. Finn coming up with a potential gravity treatment to keep her on the ship, Alara makes the choice to stay on Xelayah. As she tells Capt. Mercer, she came to the Orville to find somewhere she was needed – where she felt like family. With her family finally, truly accepting her, that’s the next place for her journey. It’s a bit of a rushed resolution to Alara’s character, to be sure, but the episode works in as much catharsis as possible in the constraints they had. In the end, “Home” closes out as gently as you’d expect, with a heartfelt meeting of the crew in the shuttle bay to see her off, and the perfect parting gift for Mercer: a jar of pickles.

Random thoughts:

  • The ship’s B-plot is slight, but offers the few laughs The Orville is willing to provide in its more sober second season in the form of interim security chief Lt. Tharl (Patrick Warburton), a walrus-like alien who has a huge esophagus-like trunk that connects to his belly “so we can pound food… just pound it.” Warburton is great, but most of the show’s remaining humor still leans a bit too hard on the concept of “what if aliens talked like frat bros, man?” I wonder if he’ll stick around to fully replace Alara.
  • MacFarlane is still the weakest performer on the show, but I really like the direction he’s taking New Ed in. While captains on Star Trek commanded respect through sheer competence and bravery, Ed Mercer is simply the earnest, fairly competent manager who tries to bring out the best of his crew, but who will let you eat your brown-bagged lunch at your work desk. His scenes were particularly good here, and Mercer’s affection for Alara as a fellow underdog is really endearing. I’ll miss that dynamic.
  • The show continues to knock it out of the park effects-wise, especially during the show’s many flybys across Xelayan cities and beaches. The bubbly, rounded aesthetic of the show feels novel rather than cartoonish at this point, and the effects show that off nicely.
  • Speaking of Xelayah, I really appreciated the way the show handled Xelayah’s higher gravity – water bottles thrown outside the gravity shield are instantly crushed, and Ed can only walk on the planet with a bulky gravity suit. This gets complicated when Billingsley’s character damages his suit, forcing a ticking-clock scenario when a crippled Ed’s leg is crushed as his suit loses power. (Good thing Union medicine is so advanced, or else that bone-crunching moment when Ed’s leg is crushed would be a lot more permament.)
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