As a season premiere airing on a Sunday night right after football, "Ja'loja" plays almost like a radical act of counter-intuitiveness. The conventional thinking is to have a big or major episode as a premiere. "Ja'loja" takes the exact opposite approach. It is deliberately low in stakes, is character-driven, and is a bottle show to boot. It is a "hangout episode" where we spend time bouncing around various subplots that allow us to basically catch up with each of the regular characters. I respect the deliberate lack of ambition. I unfortunately can't get on board with some of the actual material.
The titular "Ja'loja" is a satirical take on the Trekkian Alien Custom, like the Pon Farr in "Amok Time." The Ja'loja itself is mostly a red herring (the actual "ceremony" takes up less than one minute of screen time), because the episode is consumed with the lives of the rest of the crew leading up to the ceremony. What details we get (Bortus must return to his homeworld once a year to urinate into a canyon) are less than ideal, and I will continue to question the wisdom of how this series thinks silly bathroom humor passed off as sci-fi cultural insight is productive. The show itself knows this is ridiculous, as evidenced by Ed's briefing where (lame) pee jokes are inevitable, but at the same time wants to pretend this is a genuinely legitimate angle to explore as a matter of Bortus' alien character. (Yes, this is played lightheartedly and isn't the least bit offensive, but I can't understand why we're saddled with an absurd premise like this instead of something that treats the characters with dignity.)
There are multiple story threads here, although no "plot" in the conventional sense. None of it is riveting, nor is it trying to be. Most of it is pleasant and breezy in a 1990s sitcom sort of way. (An unrecognizable Jason Alexander appears as the ship's bartender, which ties in with the sitcom theme, and especially the concept of this being a "show about nothing.") Some of it is obnoxious. Your mileage may vary when it comes to any of the subplots.
I probably most enjoyed the Malloy/LaMarr plot, where LaMarr serves as a dating consultant to help Malloy in his futile attempts to work up the courage to ask out the ship's new cartographer. The tone here fit the material the best and most naturally, and there's the case of that awesomely ridiculous jacket ("Feels like too many zippers."), which made me chuckle every time I saw it. I also liked the idea of a pickup-line bar program with increasing levels of difficulty.
Also slight and amusing was Alara's dating woes, where she gets set up on a blind date with Dan (who to me will always be Elevator Guy), who recites poetry that has a romantic intensity that prompts her to flee for the exits.
Meanwhile, Claire has to face the fact that her teenage son Marcus has a new friend who is providing a bad influence (overriding the replicators — or whatever they're called in this show — so they dispense vodka to minors). Isaac shows he can be helpful when Claire needs a second hand as a single parent. This is fine; nothing really much to cheer or jeer here.
But, boy, am I over Ed and Kelly. I thought and hoped after "Mad Idolatry" this series was too, and was content with them being friends. Nope. We're treated here to a bunch of Ed's pining over Kelly while she talks about the new guy Cassius she's dating, who is super nice and unflappable in the face of awkward situations (which I guess is better than the more lame and predictable option of making him a douchebag). But Ed's whiny behavior is obnoxious, and a scene where he uses a shuttle to do a "drive-by" and peek into Kelly's window from outside the ship is behavior that strikes me as that of a stalker, not a starship captain. (Shouldn't something like this get you fired?) I know, I know, it's a sitcom joke. But more to the point: Can't we just be done with the lame Ed/Kelly rom-com stuff already? This stuff didn't work last year; why go back there again?
MacFarlane's script and direction both employ a light touch which mostly works, even when the material doesn't. This is an hour of purely middling fluff, nothing more and nothing less. As a season premiere it's not what you would expect. At the very least, this ship feels like a place where people live rather than a vessel for moving plot pieces.