What on Earth (or any other planet) possessed Seth MacFarlane to create and star in a spoof of "Star Trek" in its late-1980s "Next Generation" mode that isn't funny at all?
I don't mean that "The Orville" (premiering Sunday on Fox) is full of tawdry, inane, ill-advised jokes that weren't funny to me personally; I mean that the show is an airless vacuum, with only a few nominal attempts at ironic wit. Something terrible happened on this voyage: MacFarlane decided to make "The Orville" sincere.
Thus the show immediately and ignominiously becomes the first real stinker of the fall season, a deep-space dud, recommended only for those who like to study cases of creative bankruptcy. Fans of MacFarlane's "Family Guy" and "American Dad" stand to suffer the most, expecting (as they should) a wildly inappropriate sendup of the namby-pamby galactic harmony that serves as "Star Trek's" moral engine, which, despite its honorable altruism, is always ripe for satire. But people who have understood MacFarlane's other side — whether as a sentimental Sinatra-style crooner or reviving Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" or as a slapstick movie actor — will also wonder what went wrong here.
As one of the very few people who will ever admit to repeatedly enjoying MacFarlane's widely panned 2014 western spoof "A Million Ways to Die in the West" (hey, I'm not proud), I was hoping "The Orville" might be similarly laden with a combination of blunt humor and genre appreciation. Instead, MacFarlane and company seem primarily interested in bringing back something that is long gone — those syndicated "Next Gen" episodes that presented 20th-century ethical qualms and then provided peaceful outcomes, where politeness thrived among species.
MacFarlane stars as Ed Mercer, an underwhelming flight officer who is given a chance to mend his reputation at the helm of the deep-space cruiser Orville. Assigned to his deck crew are his party-hearty buddy Gordon (Scott Grimes); Isaac (Mark Jackson), a robot who considers humans to be a fascinating and vastly inferior subject for study; and various aliens, including an unfriendly brute named Bortus (Peter Macon), who is from a planet where the inhabitants are all male and only urinate once a year. "That's amazing," Mercer says. "I'm up two or three times a night." (Crickets. Yes, even in space.)
Mercer is galled to discover that his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) has been assigned to be his second-in-command — a twist that should provide more humor than it does. But then, everything in "The Orville" should provide more humor than it does, as if someone has come along and fumigated the funny parts, replacing them with an emphasis on the sticky personal crises and moral certitude of genuine "Trek" episodes. If "The Orville" is meant mainly as homage to the idealized future of Gene Roddenberry, then someone forgot to tell the audience.
This becomes abundantly clear in an episode in which Bortus takes three weeks of personal leave to brood an egg that he has laid. After it hatches, Bortus and his partner are horrified to discover that the baby is a girl and immediately request gender reassignment surgery from the ship's doctor (Penny Johnson Jerald), who refuses, even though it would be standard procedure on their home planet.
The old MacFarlane would have had a field day with jokes; here, the humor, such as it is, sticks to such a gentle and polite tone that a viewer will begin to wonder: Have aliens kidnapped MacFarlane and replaced him with a clone who doesn't know how to make funny TV anymore? Is it their plan to see how long some people will watch? If so, let's unite and astonish them with the swift, deadly power of our clickers.
The Orville (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Fox.