“A Happy Refrain”
The Orville Season 2, Episode 6 – Aired Thursday, January 31st, 2019
Written by Seth MacFarlane
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Issac and Dr. Finn try a new experiment and Bortus grows a mustache in a generally quiet and compelling story, with outstanding acting from Penny Johnson Jerald and Mark Jackson. Throw in some live music from MacFarlane’s love of musicals and you’ve got an enjoyable episode.
Warning: SPOILERS BELOW
In its short lifespan, The Orville has shown an affinity for character pieces. The season premiere, “Ja’loja”, was a relatively plot-less story that dealt with the private lives of several members of the crew, and this episode, “A Happy Refrain”, focuses on two characters, Dr. Claire Finn and the ship’s android, Isaac, whose budding romance takes center stage.
The seeds of a Claire/Isaac relationship were planted in the first season episode, “Into The Fold”, and the writers have sprinkled in moments between them in subsequent episodes, making the notion of Claire developing feelings for Isaac more plausible.
The basic plot resembles the fourth season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “In Theory”, where Data attempts a romantic relationship with a shipmate who has feelings for him. Both stories hit similar beats, but The Orville takes the story in its own unique direction, thanks to strong writing and sensitive performances by Penny Johnson Jerald and Mark Jackson.
Love is where you find it
While aiding Claire with a medical journal paper, Isaac brings her a banana, noting that she “becomes cantankerous after 16:00 hours” if she hasn’t eaten, and also notes that she has changed her hair, an observation she clearly appreciates. Later on, they have a quiet chat after her son Ty’s piano recital, where Issac, who is Ty’s piano tutor, is very complimentary of his musical abilities and tells her she should proud of him. These early scenes seem relatively innocuous upon first viewing, but in retrospect it makes you wonder if Isaac was already attracted to Claire, but just didn’t understand.
Claire slowly begins to realize that she’s developing romantic feelings for Isaac. Unsure how to proceed, she visits Kelly, who–after reaching for a glass of wine and recovering from shock–wonders if Claire is projecting what she wants to see from Isaac. She tells Claire to take a shot, but reminds her that, “He can’t love. Make sure you don’t get hurt.”
Isaac is clearly The Orville’s Data analogue, and while the characters appear very similar on the surface, it’s the differences between them that help drive this episode. While Data strives to become more human and is a highly regarded member of the Enterprise crew, up until now Isaac has viewed all of his experiences more dispassionately, seeing his time on the Orville as nothing more than an assignment, and tends to interact with his shipmates in a very straightforward and sometimes blunt manner. That attitude is what initially informs his relationship with Claire.
Kelly’s advice is borne out by Isaac’s response when he agrees to go to the symphony with Claire, telling her that “such an outing would yield substantial data regarding human behavioral patterns.”
Having never gone on a date before, he seeks out the Orville’s resident lothario, LaMarr. Isaac takes his advice to heart (as it were), and charms Claire by showing up for their date carrying flowers and dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt. On their way to the symphony, Claire tells Isaac she is nervous, and Johnson Jerald conveys that beautifully in her body language by the somewhat timid way she holds her hands. It’s a very sweet “first date” moment, one of many little touches Johnson Jerald uses in her performance.
At the symphony (a beautifully staged sequence in the Orville’s shuttle bay), the orchestra plays the classic “Singin’ In The Rain.” Later, over dinner in the simulator, Claire tells Isaac that the song reminds her of just how much she misses rain, and how the simulator on board the ship can’t really replicate the experience of being in a rainfall.
Because Isaac views the date as more of an experiment than an experience, he reveals to Claire that, in the interest of efficiency, he has downloaded her personnel file, begins rattling off various facts about her, and has adjusted the simulator environment based on that information – everything from the restaurant setting to the food they’re eating is based on what Isaac learned through researching her file. This puts Claire off a bit, telling Isaac that doing that robs the date of any kind of spontaneity and removes any of the excitement of getting to know someone for the first time.
Realizing that she was not satisfied with how their date went, Isaac tries to make adjustments, and gets advice from the bridge crew. Ed tells him he should try surprising her, and he and Kelly relate a story of how one time Ed had surprised Kelly by baking her a cake. Isaac, of course, takes this story literally, and shows up in Claire’s quarters at 3:00 a.m. with a chocolate cake and tells her he wants to take her on a date. Claire begins to realize that things aren’t going to work and that Isaac sees the relationship as nothing more than data, telling him “I can’t even kiss you.” She decides that it would be best if they returned to their previous platonic relationship.
Faced with another failed attempt, Isaac again seeks out LaMarr, who advises he take a more dramatic approach.
Claire receives a message to meet Isaac in the simulator, and when she arrives finds that he has run the restaurant program once again and programmed the simulator to have him appear as a human (played by Isaac actor Mark Jackson, finally able to show his face, whose British accent is more pronounced without the “machine” filter they use on his voice). He has also deleted all of his Claire-related background files, making things more spontaneous and allowing him to “discover” more about her. The effect on Claire is dramatic, and the pair share their first kiss and then consummate the relationship. A scene like this could easily become awkward and possibly laughable, but the direction and performances give it a great deal of emotional weight.
Afterwards, Claire talks to Kelly and Talla, telling them how great the experience was, how it’s “the best it’s ever been” for her sexually, and that she’s in love with Isaac.
Isaac, on the other hand, determines that he has successfully completed his task, and wants to end the relationship. He once again seeks advice from LaMarr, who tells him to make himself unappealing to her, so that she ends the relationship and “no one gets hurt, at least not as much.” This leads to one of those “should I laugh or shouldn’t I” scenes in Claire’s quarters, where she finds Isaac slouched on the couch, dressed in a “wife beater” undershirt and white underwear briefs. He behaves boorishly to Claire, who demands to know why he’s acting that way. He explains that he has now experienced “the full arc” of a human relationship, and because of that believes that their time together is at an end. A heartbroken Claire throws him out. The Orville has sometimes struggled with its attempts at “dramedy,” but I think it’s done perfectly here. The scene veers from one initially played for laughs to something far more serious, when we see how sad and upset Claire gets as she realizes just how little Isaac understands about relationships or the emotions at play.
I’ve grown accustomed to her face
Isaac experiences the fallout from his decision and is confused by it. He gets the cold shoulder from his shipmates and learns that Claire has gotten a new piano tutor for Ty. Mark Jackson has a tough assignment on this series, spending all of his time with his face completely covered (with the exception of one key scene in this episode) and denied the use of his face in order to emote, but he really shines here, as he’s able to convey Isaac’s confusion with a tilt of the head or a pause, as it becomes clear that he is no longer sure of himself.
Returning to the bridge, he makes an error while scanning a binary star, and runs a diagnostic to investigate the problem. He discovers that attempting to delete all of his Claire-related files (at her request) is the cause, and that due to the way his systems work, he has grown used to having her around and cannot simply “delete” his time with her. He is, effectively, attached to her. Ed advises him “be creative” to do what he can to win her back.
Claire then receives a call to the bridge, and when she arrives, Isaac plays “Singin’ In The Rain” over the ship’s speakers and activates the internal water system, causing it to rain. He apologizes to Claire, telling her that relationships only work when both people are trying, and that he would like to do just that. Claire asks why she should take him back, and he tells her that his internal systems would function more efficiently if she does, which Claire recognizes as the android equivalent of saying “my life is better with you in it.” They kiss, and the episode ends with them entering the simulator, hand-in-hand.
I’m dancing and singin’ in the rain
Up to this point in the show’s run, Claire has been more of a caregiver to the crew and mother to her two sons, so it was great to see her step into the spotlight. Presumably, their relationship will be an ongoing part of the series, and watching them attempt to navigate it and learn from each other should make for some interesting stories.
Much like “In Theory,” a story like this can go south in a hurry if not handled with a great deal of nuance and care. Seth MacFarlane’s script tells a sweet love story that allows a very unconventional romance to evolve at its own pace, which is delivered by wonderful performances from Penny Johnson Jerald and Mark Jackson. Johnson Jerald runs a gamut of emotions, from puppy love to utter heartbreak, as Claire tries to wend her way through a very unique relationship. Her performance in this episode is my favorite of the entire series. Jackson’s performance is marked by small moments that say a lot, and it was a great surprise to see him come out from behind the mask, something I hope we see more of in the future.
This was a great episode and my favorite of the season thus far.
- There are times when the show REALLY wears its Trek love on its sleeve. The establishing shot of the Orville at warp is framed exactly like many of the opening shots of the Enterprise in TNG.
- Gordon convincing Bortus to grow a mustache and the crew’s reaction has nothing whatsoever to do with the central story but was a nice bit of comic relief.
- Isaac bringing Claire a banana could be seen as a callback to the “anti-banana ray” gag.
- Ty was playing Chopin’s “Chanson De L’adieu” at his piano recital.
- The Union Symphony was portrayed by the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra, which performs the music for The Orville. The conductor is played by Mark Graham, an industry veteran and the show’s head of music preparation.
- The Union Symphony played the “MGM Jubilee Overture”, a composition written in 1954 to commemorate the studio’s 30th anniversary, and features a medley of classic pop songs, including “Singin’ In The Rain.”
- The ship’s simulator is getting a lot more use this season. It’s been seen as a restaurant, a bowling alley, and a place where the crew can get their groove on.
- Much like his TNG counterpart, Isaac appears to be fully functional. No word on whether he too is programmed in multiple techniques.
- Norm MacDonald comes out from behind the blob in this episode when Yaphit decides to follow Isaac’s lead and assume a human appearance while in the simulator.
- Based on the amount of lingering beauty shots of the Orville throughout this episode, I’m guessing the show came in a bit light on time.
- According to LaMarr, the quantum drive engine makes a thousand trillion independent calculations every millisecond.
- No human has ever visited Isaac’s home planet Kaylon 1, which is populated entirely with artificial life forms.
- Isaac’s mission aboard the Orville is gathering data for the Kaylon for their assessment before joining the Planetary Union.
- Claire is from Baltimore, Maryland.
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