Seth MacFarlane’s ‘The Orville’ Is Lost in Space Between Parody and Homage

Seth MacFarlane not only knows his way around the adult cartoon arena, he managed to move in and renovate, establishing a tried and true blueprint for the genre that prioritizes delightful absurdity over character-building. He has created more merchandise, stacked up more syndication checks, and solidly built an empire on cunning animated sitcoms “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” the latter of which now lives on TBS. But although he has been successful with big screen endeavors like “Ted,” live action just hasn’t been MacFarlane’s forte. Look no further than short-lived sitcom “The Winner,” which came into and fizzled out of existence before most critics had time to bat an eyelash. Undeterred, adult animation’s leading architect takes another swing at live action with “The Orville,” a middling pass at science fiction that clings on to MacFarlane’s signature quirk. It’s a futuristic misfire bouncing between “Star Trek” parody and fanboy homage, not so boldly going where many shows have already gone.

“The Orville” is a ship that happens to exist in a crazy future, one with aliens who only urinate once a year, others who get fast-tracked through the military thanks to affirmative action, and still others hailing from planets legendary for their racism. It’s Ed Mercer’s (MacFarlane) job to command a squad of these aliens and humans, and it’s not a job he particularly relishes, considering his first officer is also his ex-wife Kelly,  (Adrianne Palicki) — the one he caught cheating on him with a blue alien dude. Thankfully, he has Gordon (Scott Grimes) by his side, a not-so-trusty helmsman with a proclivity for day-drinking and graffiti. “He’s drawn a lot of penises on a lot of things,” Mercer is forced to admit about his friend.

It’s interesting that the same humor that has kept “Family Guy” afloat for so long only serves to hold “The Orville” down, leaving a lot of doubts about what exactly this show is supposed to be. Everything about it, from the Orville’s bridge to the laser blasts to the machine that can move time forward at supreme speeds, smacks of “The Next Generation” but with just enough uniquely insufferable dialogue to satisfy the attorneys at Fox. Even dramatic moments of tension where viewers should feel invested lag because of some gag the writers feel obligated to sneak in. It’s as if every joke only pulls the rug out from under us.

If the first episode does anything right, it serves its intended purpose as a pilot, acclimating the audience to the world at large. Unfortunately, it’s not a world this reviewer feels particularly inclined to explore that much further. As one would expect, Kelly stays on at Mercer’s own urging, because, “You were always better at solving my problems than I was.” If you listen closely you can hear everyone watching the show heave a collective groan.

Clearly MacFarlane is a big money player at fox, so it only makes sense he get a few projects in which he can indulge his fanboy whimsy. “Family Guy” renditions of “Star Wars” obviously aren’t cutting it for the animation genius. Here’s an out-of-this-world projection: Don’t expect “The Orville” to break MacFarlane’s live action streak.

The Orville” aired part one of its two-night premiere on Sunday, Sept. 10 on Fox. Part two airs Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.