"Majority Rule," while obvious and unsubtle, feels like a modern-day take on a Twilight Zone episode crossed with Star Trek: TOS. It takes the frequently employed "alternate Earth" approach of those series and gives us an alien society that's essentially ourselves plus an exaggerated twist — and then mines that for an hour of whimsical social satire/commentary that our heroes find themselves mired in. This is consistently entertaining, albeit not particularly challenging. It alternates scenes of wry observation with others of grand absurdity. In both cases, I got the sense that's what they were mostly going for.
The story presents us with a "pure democracy" in the form of an alien society that conducts all its legal proceedings (in particular, punitive criminal measures) through social media votes — up or down. Everyone is required to wear a badge with an up and down arrow (you can press someone's badge with an up or down vote if they do something you like or dislike), and you can vote online to pile on for someone's mild transgression that somehow ended up in the public eye. If you get more than 10 million down votes during the "judging window" (how the timing of the opening and closing of this window works is not really clear, but who cares), you are sentenced to a "correction" measure to fix your bad behavior — essentially a lobotomy that turns you into a docile mental simpleton.
This is, of course, a terrible system for conducting important societal business, which is shown right up front when the young barista Lysella (Giorgia Whigham) wakes up and sees the latest judging subjects on TV giving their "apology tour"; she thoughtlessly down-votes them for purely superficial reasons (with zero actual information) while having a trivial phone conversation. It's the sort of recognizable social reflection exaggerated by a sci-fi scenario that feels like vintage Twilight Zone. (That any society could function at as high a level as this one appears to with these dopey rules is probably ridiculous, but I'll grant the story its premise.)
The men she's judging are actually undercover Union anthropologists studying the planet; their terrible crime was not giving up a train seat to a pregnant woman they didn't notice. It ended up on the "master feed" (a more-ubiquitous version of a Facebook news feed) where everyone started down-voting them, until they reached the threshold of the damned and went on to their final trial. One is "corrected" after reaching 10 million down-votes; the other is shot trying to escape that fate.
A month later, the Orville arrives to find out what happened to the missing anthropologists. They send down an undercover landing party (Grayson, Kitan, LaMarr) and slowly learn about this bizarre voting system. This unfortunately does not happen until after LaMarr, while joking around, inadvertently creates an offensive display that is recorded on video and uploaded to the master stream, where he suddenly receives millions of down-votes. With his PR stock plummeting, he must go on an apology tour with his assigned PR man (Steven Culp) to make amends.
This is milked for some contemporary satire, like when LaMarr goes on a talk show not unlike The View, where he futilely attempts to turn around his bad press. Doing so proves difficult on a world that is all about moral superiority and judging rudeness from the afar mountaintop of self-righteous indignation. (As one woman, who is refused service in a coffee shop because she has more than half a million down votes, says: "I got most of these votes in my 20s; I was a completely different person then!" Nobody cares.) This culture of judgment is of course a common criticism when it comes to social media. "Majority Rule" is not subtle or nuanced about any of this (and is one-sided about social media, the benefits of which are ignored), but it doesn't make the potshots at our current culture any less true. There's a point late in the story where Isaac floods the master stream with a torrent of fake news (the actual fabricated kind that existed before the term was appropriated by the current occupant of the Oval Office) to reverse LaMarr's bad fortunes. That he's successful is mostly because people simply like the things they like and respond to them in the moment, and not because they will actually check the facts later.
Why can't the Orville crew simply break LaMarr free of this in the first place? Because Admiral Ron Canada is playing the always stern Ron Canada role of preventing Mercer from doing anything that would violate the Union rules of whatever this universe's pre-First Contact Prime Directive is. Fair enough. But the biggest disappointment here is the story's use of LaMarr, in what is the first episode that gives him anything to do beyond flying the ship and offering up quippy black-dude asides. Here his irreverence makes him instantly conspicuous and he brings this whole ordeal crashing upon himself; it just makes the character look needlessly stupid. (And if this planet has been under observation, why doesn't the Orville crew know the basics about the popular-vote-based society?)
What I liked best about "Majority Rule" was the way it dropped us into this world and let us learn the rules along with the Orville crew. It allows for the sort of universe-building that makes the series feel larger and more lived-in. And by making the alien society mostly like 21st-century Earth, the episode can simply go out and shoot on location rather than having to create a more limited world on a confined set. It allows the show to breathe. Also, it's clear by now the series has rejected the idea of a "universal translator" and, like TOS, has decided that a language barrier is simply not a factor to bother plotting around. I'm okay with that; it streamlines the storytelling and reminds us how everything here is metaphorical.
The Orville feels like it's starting to find itself. At the very least, it feels more like it's finding me. The stories feel more original. The tone continues to smooth itself out; this episode might be the one with the lowest yet amount of shoehorned-in side-humor, though it retains its lightness. "Majority Rule" is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg might be right with his stubborn refusal to listen to the people who think Facebook should have a "dislike" button.