“The Orville” on FOX
Having delivered such hits as “Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad,” creator Seth MacFarlane seems to have free range to do pretty much whatever he wants over at FOX—which is as good an explanation as any for what the hell is going on with his new live-action series, “The Orville.”
For months FOX has been touting “The Orville” as a wacky send-up of space-age action shows like “Star Trek.” The rudely humorous Mr. MacFarlane loves to parody pop culture, and this seems like a slightly hipper milieu to play in than the cowboy action genre of MacFarlane’s stillborn feature A Million Ways to Die in the West. But as the show’s recently aired pilot proved, “The Orville” is, at best, poorly advertised and, at worst, a surefire candidate for the first canceled show of the new season.
In the series MacFarlane puts himself front-and-center as Ed Mercer, a futuristic spaceship captain who finds his career sidelined when he catches his wife (Adrianne Palicki from “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Friday Night Lights”) in bed with a blue-skinned alien. A year later, still heartbroken, the sad sack spaceman is offered command of a shiny new exploratory vessel, the titular Orville. The catch? His executive officer is the cheating wife he dumped 12 months ago. Who saw that coming?
While this all sounds like a standard setup for sitcom laughs, “The Orville” is actually more interested in being a workplace drama. There are occasional jokes, mostly involving characters rambling on about tangential topics (a MacFarlane trademark). But the funny thing is “The Orville” isn’t trying to be a comedy.
Now there’s nothing wrong with having a real-deal, non-silly science fiction show on television. Maybe, you could argue, FOX has simply done MacFarlane a disservice by selling us a bill of goods concerning his new show. After all, it’s clear from the get-go that MacFarlane wants “The Orville” to be taken seriously. But if you ignore the occasional punchlines and treat “The Orville” as sincere genre television, it just doesn’t hold up. The show is so wedded to the “Star Trek” aesthetic—from the setting to the plot to the color-coded costumes right down to the sound-alike musical score—that it’s never going to feel like anything remotely original. What do you call an identical carbon copy that isn’t a parody? An uninspired rip-off.
You can’t really blame MacFarlane for wanting to play in Gene Roddenberry’s world. And “The Orville” nails a lot of the details, right down to the optimistic future outlook. The effects look great—maybe even as good as CBS All Access’ upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery.” But the characters are generic and forgettable, the settings are overly familiar, and the plots are riddled with cliché. (Rule of thumb: If “Star Trek” did it and “The Simpsons” spoofed it 30 years later, it’s been done to death, guys.)
Thanks to its rather aggressive lack of originality, “The Orville” just ends up looking, sounding and feeling like a expensive bit of “Star Trek” fan fiction. Sci-fi fans are likely to be offended by the schizophrenic tone, and MacFarlane devotees will probably be bored waiting for the raunchy jokes to show up.