THE SHOW “The Orville”
WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., then moves to Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Sept. 21 on Fox/5
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Four hundred years in the future, the USS Orville is a modest midlevel “exploratory” spacecraft. It’s hardly as imposing as the cruiser class in the Union fleet, but Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) has been out of a job for a while so when fleet commander Adm. Halsey (Victor Garber) offers him the captain gig, Mercer knows better than to say no. He is tempted to, however, when presented with a catch: His ex, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) must be his first officer, Halsey insists. Ed gets the rest of his crew together, including Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), a beer-swilling party boy and expert flight technician; John LaMarr (J. Lee), also a top flight tech; another officer, Bortus (Peter Macon), helmsman Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), and Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald). A member of the crew named Yaphet — a giant green blob — is voiced by Norm MacDonald. They are about to face the dangers of outer space, and, yes, comparisons with “Star Trek” are intended in this live-action dramedy.
MY SAY MacFarlane was born five years after the original Enterprise had stopped boldly going where no man had gone before, but space, time or birthdays are of little consequence to the most influential brand in TV history. The TV canon is so vast, the message so indelible, and the glory of “Trek” so resonant that escape from its orbit is impossible, and reverence inevitable. If you loved “Trek” — as millions did and still do — it became a part of your soul. Understandably, it became a part of MacFarlane’s too. Alongside that inner Stewie Griffin there’s an inner James Tiberius Kirk. Homage was inevitable. “The Orville” is that homage.
But as fans know and detractors too, MacFarlane is not an homage sort of guy. That inner-Stewie is too subversive. Sooner or later, he’ll get out the whoopee cushions, and the flatulence jokes will follow. That’s “The Orville” too — a high-minded spitball thrower that can’t quite figure out the right balance between love and parody. The outcome is an ersatz facsimile of the original “Trek” and a couple of spinoffs. Their heart and overall spirit are present, along with some decent special effects. The dumb jokes and ham-fisted setup lines just tend to diminish them.
How uneven is this? Fox offered the first three episodes for review but maybe should have withheld the third. It’s a serious look at gender reassignment surgery (Really!) where the occasional joke or quip lands like a space bug on the Orville windshield.
With his clout at Fox, MacFarlane did get an adequate special-effects budget for this, and a good cast, including Palecki of “Friday Night Lights” and prime-time vet Grimes (now best known as the voice of Steve Smith on “American Dad!”). Most important, he got the services of Brannon Braga, his co-showrunner on “Cosmos,” also a creditable sci-fi producer with extensive “Trek” credits going back 25 years. (Braga’s a co-exec producer on this).
But it’s abundantly clear there’s only one star here, and one boss, and his name leads the credits. That may be a problem. As both series lead and showrunner, MacFarlane has nobody to rein in his worst impulses or augment his considerable talents. “The Orville” has potential but the show — and he — first need to get out of their own ways.
BOTTOM LINE Wildly uneven “Star Trek” parody-homage gumbo.