What, exactly, is The Orville supposed to be?
Is it, as some promotional ads on Fox suggest, an in-your-face satire of classic Star Trek-style science fiction shows – with trash-talking starship officers and a gelatinous blob of a life-form played by Norm MacDonald – crafted by the guy who created Family Guy and Ted?
Or is it an earnest, often unfunny homage to '90s-era Trek shows like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, complete with stories about starship crewmembers abducted for an intergalactic zoo and members of a mostly-male species who demand the right to give their infant daughter a sex change?
If you ask creator Seth MacFarlane, it's a bit of both.
"Because we're an hourlong show, the story kind of has to come first....it can't just be gag, gag, gag, gag," MacFarlane told TV critics during a press conference earlier this year, making sure to point out that he's not making a Mel Brooks-style slapstick parody like Spaceballs. "We really do see it as a sci-fi comedic drama, in that we allow ourselves room for levity in ways that a traditional hourlong sci-fi show doesn't ... Whether we've succeeded is obviously up to the viewers."
What it feels like, to this viewer, is a failure of tone. The Orville is trying to walk a fine line – funny enough to poke fun at Trek-style shows, but not an all-out satire like Galaxy Quest. It calls back to Next Generation as a loving homage that even mimics the Trek show's music cues, while tweaking enough details that Fox doesn't get sued.
In short, The Orville is trying so hard not to be so many things, it isn't fully any one thing. Which makes it, officially, the strangest misfire of the fall TV season.
MacFarlane has whipped up a universe that is a fine-tuned copy of Next Generation-era Star Trek, aided by executive producer Brannon Braga, who worked on three Trek TV series as a top producer. MacFarlane plays a hapless everyman named Ed Mercer, tapped to command a space vessel called The U.S.S. Orville, a ship in the Planetary Union fleet.
Just like Next Generation-era Trek, The Orville features a bridge that looks like a well-carpeted rec room, dominated by a huge video screen flanked by two helmsmen. And just as in Trek, The Planetary Union fleet is structured like the Navy, which means the Orville is crewed by a captain, first officer, security chief and more. They've even got laser-like pistols and a galaxy-hopping engine drive that leaves a cool-looking afterburner image, just like ....
Well. You know.
But unlike Trek, The Orville's crew is hardly the best and brightest. While receiving his commission, Mercer is informed by an admiral – played by an officious Victor Garber, looking like he landed this gig by losing a bet – that he's been put on report six times for coming to work hungover.
His helmsman Gordon Malloy (ER and Justified alum Scott Grimes) pops open a beer while piloting a shuttle to the ship for the first time. And his first officer, played by former Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. co-star Adrianne Palicki, is also the ex-wife he divorced after catching her in bed with a blue alien dude.
Watching the pilot, I kept wondering: Does the humor fall flat because the show is trying not to be too broadly funny? Or is MacFarlane — who has a petulant Mercer bring up his ex-wife's infidelity so much, you want to pay for his therapy yourself – just not great at writing a space comedy?
Mostly, this all feels like a giant playground for MacFarlane, one of Fox's biggest stars and a confessed sci-fi nerd. During a visit to the show's set, the special effects people kept talking about how involved MacFarlane was with the look of the ship, its sets and its aliens.
It's also no secret that MacFarlane seems to want a career as a performer in front of the camera, after big hits voicing animated characters. Beyond a passion project, The Orville feels like a series developed to give a Hollywood heavyweight a Trekkie's dream – the closest thing to appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation that is possible on TV in 2017.
There's also a bro-centered style to this comedy that feels odd, and stands at odds with Trek tradition. MacFarlane's Mercer bonds with his goofy helmsman buddy and chafes at working with his domineering ex (the helmsman uses a different, more profane word to describe her, by the way). In classic Star Trek, the white male hero's closest friend is the alien character; on The Orville, aliens are mostly weird sight gags, and everyone works to prop up a mediocre leader.
The most intriguing episode made available to press is the least funny; "About a Girl" (the third episode of the season) focuses on a crewman who is the member of a race that is all male. When he and his mate have a child that is female, they initially ask the ship's doctor to give the infant a sex change and the doctor refuses, kicking off a cross-species debate. Aside from the occasional joke, much of this story is played as a straight sci-fi drama, which makes it all feel like a watered-down Next Generation episode.
What is most confusing about The Orville is that there's already a blueprint for success out there: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Those films are everything The Orville isn't, offering stories with lots of cool science fiction adventure, filled with comedy that veers from wry to slapstick, centered on how people with terrible, tragic personal histories can build chosen families with those they love and trust.
I've rarely been able to understand MacFarlane's appeal. So it's possible the same fans who made a long running series out of Family Guy will show up for The Orville, too.
But I can't help thinking if MacFarlane had pulled back on the Trek influences and dialed in a little more Guardians and Galaxy Quest, he might have come up with a far more compelling show than the one he's starring in right now.