When the dust settles, “The Orville” may emerge as the most inexplicable show of the new season. It certainly never makes a convincing case for its existence. The first impression — that it exists so that creator and star Seth MacFarlane can do elaborate “Star Trek” cosplay — is only reinforced over the course of the tepid trio of episodes that kick off the show.
MacFarlane has said he created “The Orville,” which also serves as the name of the ship its characters use to travel the galaxy, in order to put aspirational sci-fi back on television. He’s not wrong about the fact that too many shows lack both the humanistic optimism that defines “Star Trek” and the structural rigor the franchise’s TV writers displayed at their best.
But the way to pay homage to all things “Trek” (and “Twilight Zone”) is not with derivative storylines that awkwardly mix the frat-bro humor found on MacFarlane’s animated programs with unexceptional space adventures. “The Orville” attempts a mind-meld between classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and warmed-over “Family Guy,” but it never really gets there.
That’s not the only issue. On small and large screens, one of “Star Trek’s” most consistent faults is casting good actresses in key roles yet treating their characters with condescending and even sexist attitudes at times. As it dutifully excavates the Federation legacy, “The Orville” imports that deflating habit as well.
Adrianne Palicki’s Kelly Grayson, the ship’s second-in-command, is defined almost completely by the resentment that Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and his best bro, navigator Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), display toward her. Ed and Kelly used to be married, but their relationship went sour: In the opening scene of “The Orville,” Ed finds Kelly cheating on him, and he never misses an opportunity to remind her of that.
And yet, even though her ex and his buddy frequently scold and try to shame her, “The Orville” would have viewers believe she may want to get back together with him. Kelly even says at one point she wants to “atone” for her actions, which is why she pulled strings to be assigned with her ex, who apparently wasn’t a very good husband. Perhaps an alien could find logic in that scenario, but it’s elusive to the human mind.
Palicki, who’s brisk and winning. does her best with the material she’s given, but most of the writing for Kelly and Ed is so flat and predictable that their love lives actually grow less interesting over time.
As an actor, MacFarlane displays basic competence, but he does not have the charisma or chops to carry an entire season of an hourlong drama, nor is he able to set the right tone for the show. Of course, that would be difficult for anyone, given “The Orville’s” inconsistency about what it wants to be. It tries to be light and comedic, except when it’s a morality play or an action hour or a hangout comedy set in space. It doesn’t help that most of the jokes don’t display the liveliness of a batch of Tribbles.
On an aesthetic level, “The Orville” doesn’t make any notable attempts to update the pastel, blue and black palette that various “Star Treks” were addicted to back in the day, which feels like a missed opportunity. All in all, the echoes of other journeys from past eras make for a superficial and undistinguished voyage. There’s a robotic character, scenes set in shuttle bays, clashes with warlike races, among other standard sci-fi elements. Most of the aliens have bumpy foreheads and otherwise resemble dozens of “Trek” races through the ages.
There is an attempt to do something unusual with one species: An officer aboard the Orville named Bortus (Peter Macon) is from a planet populated exclusively by males, as is his mate, Klyden (Chad L. Coleman). The third installment, which is devoted entirely to their efforts to expand their family, is one of the most spectacular and unfortunate storytelling fails of the year.
An air of self-congratulation hangs over the entire hour, as if MacFarlane, who wrote it, couldn’t get over his awe at his own bravery in engaging with a difficult, complex topic. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the show takes a big creative swing tackling issues of gender and identity, but it does not connect, and the end result is disastrous. If it’s challenging for “The Orville” to wring laughs from the audience, it’s all but impossible for it to earn the dramatic (and tone-deaf) conclusion it attempts in the third episode.
MacFarlane was part of the team that brought back “Cosmos,” one of the most delightful TV revivals of the last few years. Clearly he cares about space, science and the evolution of the human race, all of which appeal to many TV fans as well (hence the anticipation for CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery”). TV could always use more space-set shows, but “The Orville” just doesn’t boldly go anywhere worth following.