Despite the marketing push, you’ll probably want to avoid a trip on The Orville—unless you have a whole lot of patience and forgiveness when it comes to sci-fi dramedy.
Fox certainly hoped to have another Seth MacFarlane hit with The Orville. Family Guy has become a staple of the network’s Sunday line-up, and this new sci-fi series joins it there this week. Instead, the network has green-lit a half-baked Star Trek homage that can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. Three episodes in and it’s still hard to say, though MacFarlane does throw a whole lot of ideas at the wall along the way. As the hit maker behind projects like Family Guy, Ted and American Dad!, Fox obviously gave MacFarlane a decent bit of freedom when putting together this splashy sci-fi project.
But, in this case, a bit of restraint and direction almost certainly would’ve been for the best.
The set-up is relatively simple: 400 years in the future, Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) is named captain of a mid-level spaceship that looks equal parts Jetsons and Apple Store. He has a wacky crew of goofballs around him, including his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) as first officer, a racist robot named Isaac (Mark Jackson), the rule-breaking helmsman Gordon (Scott Grimes), super strong female security officer Alara (Halston Sage), and second officer Bortus (Peter Macon), a member of the single-gendered Moclan species. If you look up motley crew in the dictionary, that pretty much sums them up.
Fox marketed this series as a comedy, but if you’ve seen any promos, you’ve heard every joke in the pilot. The potty humor is just a Trojan horse for something far more similar to Star Trek: The Original Series than Family Guy: This is an hour-long drama instead of a half-hour sitcom, but MacFarlane doesn’t seem all that comfortable making the transition. The Orville sets out to tell many of the same morality play stories sci-fi fans are all too familiar with, as they’ve been featured on everything from Lost in Space to Stargate SG-1 to (of course) the Star Trek franchise over the years. In that respect, The Orville is aiming for something timeless, but melding it with MacFarlane’s brand of humor makes for an awkward marriage. MacFarlane wants The Orville to be taken seriously as a science fiction drama in one moment, then jumps to an alien blob making a dick joke in the next scene.
The pilot is easily the clunkiest of the three episodes made available for review, doing most of the expository heavy-lifting, and later episodes give you a better feel for the types of stories The Orville wants to tell: young leaders overcoming their fear and anxiety, sci-fi adventure, and morality plays about timely social issues. MacFarlane also checks most of the sci-fi tropes you’d expect to see, from a holodeck and a generically evil alien race to some badly choreographed laser gun fights. The Orville exists in a weird middle ground between something like Paul Feig’s short-lived Yahoo! Screen sitcom Other Space, which was positively hilarious, and a more traditional sci-fi drama. The only problem is that the series isn’t really doing any of these things all that well. It’s not outright awful, at least not most of the time, but the jokes aren’t all that funny and the sci-fi stories aren’t all that well executed. It plays with clichés (spaceship battles, the characters learning a lesson in the end, etc.), but never really does anything terribly clever with them.
Then, there’s the problem of the cast. Much like his underwhelming comedy western A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane also casts himself as the hero in The Orville. Put simply, he’s no Shatner. He’s a funny and charming guy, but MacFarlane never seems comfortable leading the charge with a phaser in hand, and comes off more like a man cosplaying a space captain than an actual, believable one. Palicki is admittedly well cast as clever first officer Kelly Grayson, though the ensemble that’s been built around the duo is hit and miss. Sage shows potential as security officer Alara; Scott Grimes’ Gordon might be one of the most annoying, overgrown frat bros to ever grace the small screen; and Peter Macon’s alien second-in-command comes off as largely one-note. With the execution of the show itself middling, it could’ve used a strong cast to see the material through. Sadly, the crew of The Orville is far from that.
If the show has a saving grace, it’s that MacFarlane wears his love for science fiction on his sleeve—and that love at times shines through. You can tell he’s having fun in the world he’s building, and there’s earnestness in his approach to the stories he’s telling. It manifests as cheesy and heavy-handed at times, sure, but there’s a glimmer of passionate potential here if MacFarlane can manage to get the pieces into place. You just have to wonder if there’ll be anyone still sticking around to watch it if that ever happens.
The Orville premieres Sunday, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. on Fox.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.