Ads for Fox’s new sci-fi series The Orville have tended to paint it as Seth MacFarlane’s Galaxy Quest, with the Family Guy creator and star riffing on Star Trek with a mix of irreverence and affection. This makes sense: MacFarlane is an unabashed Trekkie, and he’s known primarily for crude comedy (and occasional tributes to movie musicals). If that’s what MacFarlane and friends had made, it would still be a risk — MacFarlane has had many successes voicing animated or CGI characters, but the only other time he was a flesh-and-blood lead of something he created, it was A Million Ways to Die in the West — but it would be largely on-brand.
That’s not what The Orville actually is, though. (It debuts Sunday night at 8; I’ve seen the first three episodes.) Instead, it’s an hour-long drama that basically is 1990s Star Trek — or, rather, a mediocre facsimile of that era’s lamest Trek components, and with MacFarlane (who also created the series) as the lead instead of Patrick Stewart. Every five minutes or so, all the technobabble will pause so that MacFarlane or one of his co-stars (including Adrianne Palicki, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Chad L. Coleman, Halston Sage, and Penny Johnson Jerald) can make a joke about alien genitalia or 20th century Earth pop culture — one episode manages to combine the two — to keep the Peter Griffin fans in the audience from tuning out.
The whole thing’s bizarre, down to the employment of a bunch of Trek veterans behind the scenes, most notably executive producer Brannon Braga, who was responsible for many of the dumbest and most formulaic parts of The Next Generation and Voyager, including the script for what many fans consider the worst modern Trek episode ever, Voyager‘s “Threshold,” where Captain Janeway and Tom Paris devolve into amphibious creatures. (Paris himself, Robert Duncan MacNeil, directs the second episode, and Jonathan Frakes directed another.) Long stretches play out like Braga had a lot of unused Next Generation scripts in a drawer and just changed the names, and while very little of it’s good — it’s the concepts without the humanity behind them that power the best of all Trek incarnations, and this brand of exploratory sci-fi in general — there’s at least a consistent vision to it. It’s a borrowed vision, but one that makes sense together.
And yet… it’s a show created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, so there are these periodic interludes where MacFarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer and Palicki’s First Officer Kelly Grayson can bicker like the ex-spouses that they are, or helmsman Gordon Malloy (Grimes) can say something dumb, or a guest star like Jeffrey Tambor can complain about the state of his colon. I’m admittedly not in tune with most of MacFarlane’s sense of humor (I tend to prefer his gentler and/or more random pop culture gags, like Stewie’s pronunciation of “Wil Wheaton” or Robert Loggia spelling his name), but virtually every joke in The Orville is out on an island. At times, it’s not even clear what the joke is meant to be, but simply that there is one. And while it’s a relief that Palicki isn’t playing the disapproving woman who rolls her eyes at the naughty dude at the center of the story, none of the writers seem to know what to do with her, either. It’s not just that neither part fits side-by-side, but that they actively damage one another, the bland earnestness of so much of the show destroying the rhythms of the jokes, and the gags in turn sending out a message that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. The third episode involves a debate over whether to approve a sex change on a baby from an alien race that normally has only one gender; it tackles its many moral questions clumsily but sincerely, and then a viewing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer winds up being a major plot point, rendering the whole thing too silly to matter at all.
Why exactly does this show exist? Well, when you’ve made as much money for your bosses as MacFarlane has for the executives at Fox, if you want to act out your dream to be the captain of a very thinly-disguised Star Trek spinoff, you get to. But MacFarlane’s very presence all but demands a certain style and amount of comedy that runs counter to everything else, even as the more overtly Jean-Luc Picard moments undermine the jokes. (And where Stewart, Avery Brooks, and some of the other better Trek spinoff actors could disguise the flaws of even the most didactic and flimsy story, MacFarlane doesn’t have the gravitas to make any of it seem better or more serious than it actually is.) Humor and drama can peacefully co-exist, even in this kind of setting — the aforementioned Galaxy Quest is both a Trek spoof and one of the better (unofficial) Star Trek movies — but that requires care and effort, where all of this feels slapped together at the last possible minute.
There’s a point in one episode where Captain Mercer tells an alien, “I’m just not gonna try comedy with you.” It’s a strategy that would serve The Orville well — or would if non-comic parts were worth the bother.