In Minneapolis, we, like a significant portion of the Midwest, are finally clawing out of the wretched, record-breaking arctic cold that ground down on us like the Laurentide ice sheet. Schools were cancelled, car batteries died and everyone was effectively shut inside like an old-timey Klondike prospector stranded in their cabin through the winter with nothing but their union suit and a single bean on a tin plate. It’s been less than a week, but felt interminable. And the only thing that helped keep me sane was generous amounts of alcohol, stable internet, and a partner willing to patiently listen to me as I cursed out our dishwasher’s frozen drain line. All of which is to say; the cold blackness of space —while slightly warmer than the upper Midwest— is going to be a lonelier place than most, and it’s completely understandable why Dr. Claire would seek out love in unconventional places.
“A Happy Refrain” is the culmination of a relationship that began to form between Dr. Claire and Isaac back in season 1’s “Into the Fold”. It’s also another reminder that Penny Johnson Jerald is one of the best things The Orville has going for it. It’s not that no one else would be able to sufficiently realize the love between tomorrow’s modern woman just trying to have it all and a robot, but Johnson brought a delicate range of vulnerability, self-reflection, and thoughtfulness to a storyline that could easily be a dumb joke. It was enjoyable to see her interact with the rest of the crew outside of wisdom dispensation or problem-solving, as well. The scene where she confides with Kelly about her feelings achieved the kind of casual naturalism I feel the show strives for, but is too stiff to regularly deliver.
It also helps that the writing was clever enough to sustain the conceit. Isaac is Data from TNG all the way down to inflection and line delivery. The main quality that separates the two (as well as making Isaac a better fit for a more comedically-inclined show) is that unlike Data, he neither strives to be more human, nor has any particular desire to please. Data may have lacked emotions, but he was a real go along to get along kind of android. Not so Isaac, who is utterly bereft of any sentimentality in a delightful way. Which makes it that much more difficult to organically (human pun) facilitate a relationship between him and Claire. In order to properly convey the parallels between Isaac’s calculated logic and human courtship, his programming functions had to align with broad relationship tropes. Some of those, such as Isaac bringing Claire a snack because he’s recorded multiple instances of her becoming grumpy at a specific time, or noticing her new hairdo (“Have you changed the configuration of your hair?”) were cute. His data-completion cycle as a stand-in for the idea that a dude will grow tired of a woman after she has sex with him and want to leave is less so. But by the time the episode ended, their journey felt well-earned.
Dr. Claire and Isaac’s dating began in earnest when she asks him to attend an appearance by a travelling Union orchestra. It’s unlike anything the show has done so far to indulge in a performance by an entire classical orchestra, but it was all in service of presenting a rendition of “Singing in the Rain”, which is very much like a lot of things the show has done. Afterwards, while sharing dinner in a fine-dining simulation, Claire confesses the one thing she misses about earth is the rain. The date goes well enough, but Claire is turned off by the unsurprisingly robotic nature of the evening. After an ill-conceived attempt to introduce spontaneity by presenting her with a cake at 3 o’ clock in the morning, Isaac tries something else.
Isaac invites Claire out for another date and harnesses the ill-defined parameters of the ship’s simulator to appear human, as well as provide actor Mark Jackson the chance to perform outside of his layers of fabric and plastic. I’m grateful he was given the opportunity and hope his arc with Dr. Claire allows more time out of the costume, because his seems particularly restrictive. Even Doug Jones ( Star Trek: Discovery’s Saru, and another actor relegated to heavy prosthetic roles due to is frame and physical expressiveness) often gets the use of his own eyes and mouth. Isaac is as covered up as a Power Ranger and even those guys got to point and kick and flail with a hyper-kinetic energy usually reserved for fending off bees. Isaac’s clinical, subdued nature reduces his available range of gestures to a series of delicate hand flourishes. In her eagerness to make love to a squishy Isaac, Claire immediately switches out the restaurant to a simulation of her quarters that she has apparently programmed into the ship’s computer. This would be more disturbing if it weren’t already established that the simulator is pretty much a receptacle for the entire ship’s depravities. It’s like a hot tub; just don’t go in there with any open wounds.
At this point, Claire believes she’s in love and Isaac is done with dating. He seeks out John for questionable break-up advice and attempts to implement it by sitting around in Claire’s quarters in a stained undershirt and baggy whitey-tighties while behaving insensitively. Of course, his theatricality can’t be as cruel as his real reasons for wanting to end their relationship. He simply no longer sees any value in it. It’s so cold, and seemingly in line for Isaac’s personality, it’s actually quite touching when he undergoes a diagnostic to discover why he botched an analysis, only to discover his attempts to minimize the presence of Claire from his mighty robot brain is causing him to malfunction. So he makes the most human decision of all; to stage a public grand gesture that’s both awkward and inconvenient for everyone watching. He has Claire meet him on the bridge, which he has rigged to produce a downpour timed with another rendition of “Singing in the Rain.” It looks miserable. Everyone looks miserable. Except Claire, who looks ecstatic. And Isaac, who looks like a robot. Possibly a robot in love.
- Bortus grew a mustache. That’s the alpha and the omega of tonight’s b-story. A mustache? On Bortus? Yup! Lookit it! Klyden hates it! Husbands, amiright? I wish Bortus and Klyden had a better relationship. I guess I don’t know what the standard for Moclan marriage is, but they always seem miserable with each other. Murder-happy space armadillos deserve happiness too.
- Also getting in on the appearing-as-human bit is Norm Macdonald, who usually just supplies the voice for the green blob Yaphet. I didn’t really touch on Yaphet’s jealousy toward Isaac, because I’m still so annoyed at the episode where Jerald had to pretend to make love to a cgi blob, I did like Yaphet’s MRA application of “m’lady?” when offering Claire a drink.
- As dumb as it may be that Gordon and John would rush to the bridge to tell everyone Claire and Isaac had a date, it was pretty adorable watching the two of them tear through the ship together.
- “I would like to know more about Baltimore.” “That’s not a sentence you hear very often.”
- Fashion Corner: In his date night black leather New Balance shoes, Chinos, and powder blue dress shirt, Isaac is still the best dressed civilian aboard that ship. Like, look at Cassius, for god’s sake. That guy hasn’t met an ill-fitting turtleneck he doesn’t like. Claire’s evening gown went a little muppet-y with the rainbow trim, but the offset scoop collar was nice. Also, who the hell can pull off black leather capris? Penny Johnson Jerald can, apparently.