Go big or go home.
That's the takeaway from "A Happy Refrain," in which Seth MacFarlane puts his money (well, Fox's money) and heart all-in on an hour of fanciful whimsy that will come off as either hugely affectionate or hugely self-indulgent, depending on your level of cynicism. Maybe both. Put me in the "both" camp.
I respect MacFarlane for having the guts to go so far out there and clearly dig so deep into his well of personal obsessions and put them out on the screen for everyone to see, even though this is the very opposite of cool. MacFarlane is clearly a hopeless romantic who believes in big, grand gestures as much as he believes in sophomoric jokes. The question to be answered is whether the concept can work within the confines of these characters. It tries very hard, and it comes close, but it ultimately falls short.
"A Happy Refrain" starts with the concept of TNG's "In Theory" (in which a crew member started dating Data), then filters that through an ode to 1940s screwball comedies, and then filters that through 1990s romantic comedy cliches and dialogue. All of this, of course, is set on a 1990s idea of a starship. In this take on the story, Claire has been developing feelings for Isaac (which has been quietly telegraphed over several episodes, so that's good) and tells Kelly she's thinking of asking him out on a date.
Does this work as an hour of The Orville? Kind of. It at times really made me ask what The Orville actually is, with its musical interludes and the courage to just take a character story and run with it, and only it (no side plots here). I tried, tried, tried to cave in and accept this for what it was. I almost got there. I laughed numerous times throughout the episode, especially at Bortus' mustache, which is unquestionably the most awesome/hilarious thing this series has ever done. (At the end of the episode the mustache is, sadly, gone; if there's a campaign to bring it back permanently, I'll sign on.)
But the core of the episode just never broke through for me, and the reason for that is Dr. Claire Finn. Claire just seems too reasonable to do the things the writers have her put herself through here. Claire and Kelly are, really, the only adults on this show. And Claire, as pointed out by the only other adult, is the wisest person on the ship. So I cannot account for why Claire wouldn't have predicted all the problems she and Isaac have in the course of this episode. And yet Claire seems surprised, over and over again. That's comedy, but it sometimes feels like it's at Claire's expense — or at least the expense of her sensibility. (I should add that this episode is definitely not mean-spirited.)
The problem is the same one I had with "In Theory": Isaac does not have emotions and Claire knows this, so the fundamental starting point of where this relationship is coming from and where it might go doesn't make any emotional sense. Sure, the episode tries to deal with this, but it cycles through so many iterations of failure that Claire ends up looking like a pawn in a very contrived conceit rather than a real person. That unfortunately is a significant problem, and why I can't bring myself to recommend this, despite its charms.
Here's an episode featuring a piano solo by Claire's son, a performance by a symphony orchestra in a shuttle bay, Isaac wearing clothes, and LaMarr continuing his Love Doctor role in advising Isaac on how to romance and then later break up with Claire. There's good stuff here. There's also plenty of relationship cliches that drive the plot and are only slightly satirized. There's also Bortus' mustache, which is hilarious on sight, and looks amazing. (That all the other characters hate it is, in my opinion, wrong.) And the sequence where Isaac makes himself a simulated human body is intriguing, and allows Mark Jackson to appear on the show without the robot suit (which I believe has been a liability for this character since day one). This leads to simulated sex that walks a fine line between thoughtful and uncomfortably silly. But MacFarlane takes us there, and it mostly works. Later, there's a good gag where Yaphit appears as an IRL Norm Macdonald to see if he can similarly pull it off.
But at the end of the day, the moments don't quite add up, and sincere intent is not a full measure of success. I could not suspend my disbelief because I didn't buy the underlying premise and Claire's responses within its confines. This ultimately feels like a thought experiment, not a woman falling in love with a robot (and within his ability, his AI methods of reciprocating). There are no feelings at stake.
It all comes down to that ending, in which Isaac makes it rain on the bridge to "Singin' in the Rain" and the episode closes on a drenched Claire and Isaac embracing. This plays as a fanciful concept, not as something actually happening to the characters. Emotionally, it's inert. A moment like that has to have you happy for the characters, not staring in bafflement. It may be the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary moment and perhaps a Rorschach test for the entire series: Can I accept a show that is a string of zany conceits played through its creator's personal meta lens, or do I expect something more concrete and believable? I see what they are going for here. But this episode wants me to be moved by the ending, and I wasn't.