Consider this a red alert to TV fans everywhere: Are you expecting Seth MacFarlane’s new Fox series The Orville to be a fun Star Trek parody packed with wall-to-wall jokes? Two words of advice: Abandon ship.
Despite what Fox’s official site claims, The Orville — premiering this Sunday at 8/7c — is not a “hilarious comedy.” It’s not even a comedy. Yes, there are a few Family Guy-esque punchlines scattered throughout, but as bafflingly as this sounds, The Orville is mostly a straightforward drama… and not a very good one, at that. Riddled with sci-fi clichés and paralyzed by a grim self-importance, MacFarlane’s shiny new vessel ends up being a colossal dud that not only fails to take flight, it short-circuits before it even gets out of the docking bay.
Set 400 years in the future, The Orville stars MacFarlane as Ed Mercer, who’s finally given a chance to captain his own spaceship. His new crew includes wisecracking helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), security officer Alara (Halston Sage), an “incredibly racist” robot named Isaac (Mark Jackson)… and Ed’s ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who gets assigned to be his first officer after he caught her in bed with a blue alien. (Yes, like way too many TV pilots these days, The Orville kicks off with a character walking in on their spouse cheating on them.)
Now this set-up might’ve worked as a half-hour comedy, since some of the interstellar gags actually land. (I enjoyed Norm Macdonald as the voice of an amorphous green blob, for example.) But as an hour-long drama, The Orville is downright tedious, with painfully earnest dialogue and melodramatic act breaks that verge on self-parody. Scene after scene lands with a thud, like you’re waiting for a clever punchline that never comes. MacFarlane, and his show, take themselves so damn seriously that they suck all the fun out of space exploration.
I don’t doubt MacFarlane’s sincerity here: It’s obvious that he’s a genuine Trek fan, and we could always use more great science fiction on TV. But The Orville‘s sci-fi plots are either shamelessly derivative — c’mon, Episode 2’s human-zoo storyline was already a plot on both the original Star Trek and The Twilight Zone — or suffocatingly preachy, like in Episode 3, when the birth of an alien baby leads to a long and ponderous debate about gender identity. That might be a worthwhile discussion to have… just maybe not on a Seth MacFarlane show.
Frankly, MacFarlane is way out of his depth here, not only as a dramatic writer, but also as an actor. After making a career as an irreverent smart-ass, it’s near impossible to take him seriously as a dramatic leading man. Palicki was terrific on Friday Night Lights — Texas forever, y’all — but her talents are wasted here on a sorely underwritten character. (Kelly is Ed’s ex-wife, she cheated on him and… yep, that’s about it.) Really, the entire cast is trapped in limbo thanks to the erratic writing, asked to recite heavy dramatic monologues one minute and then crack crude jokes the next.
Fox clearly sunk a ton of money into The Orville; the CGI effects are impressive, even rivaling CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery, also debuting this fall. But those effects, along with the show’s ridiculously grandiose orchestral score, belong on a sci-fi series with some actual dramatic heft. The Orville has all the trappings of a quality sci-fi drama, but none of the substance — and with MacFarlane at the helm, the somber tone just does not compute. I don’t usually try to predict how viewers will react to a given show, but I think a lot of them will be utterly confused by The Orville, and angry at Fox for promising a rollicking outer-space comedy and then delivering… this.
What the hell went so wrong? My best guess: MacFarlane made Fox a boatload of cash with Family Guy, and therefore earned enough capital to do anything he wants, so the network is humoring him by indulging this elaborate Trek cosplay. The Orville feels like a vanity project, plain and simple, and while it might be fun for MacFarlane to run around shooting phasers and playing Captain Kirk, it’s not much fun to watch. Because it doesn’t work as comedy. It doesn’t work as sci-fi. It just doesn’t work at all.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Deadly serious and hopelessly hokey, The Orville is not the Family Guy-in-space comedy you were promised. It’s much worse.