When assessing Seth MacFarlane’s projects — “Family Guy,” “American Dad!,” “The Cleveland Show,” the “Ted” movies and “A Million Ways to Die in the West” — it’s important to keep things in perspective. With his success-to-failure ratio, as a baseball player, he’d be headed to the hall of fame. As a surgeon, he’d be headed to prison.
With his latest, the sci-fi comedy (?) “The Orville” (5 p.m. Sunday, Fox), let’s just say it’s a good thing he didn’t go to medical school.
MacFarlane stars as Ed Mercer who, 400 years from now, docks his spaceship at his apartment at the end of a hard day’s work only to catch his wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), in bed with a blue alien.
After a year of drinking, slacking off and nearly ruining his career, Ed is given command of the mid-level exploratory spacecraft the U.S.S. Orville. “The truth is, you’re nobody’s first choice for this job,” he’s told by Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber). “But we have 3,000 ships to staff, and we need captains.”
Because “The Orville” adheres closely to the “Star Trek” mold, the crew is a mix of humans — the helmsman (Scott Grimes), the chief medical officer (Penny Johnson Jerald) and the navigator (J Lee) — and aliens. With the latter, MacFarlane gets, I’m not sure if “creative” is the word, but at least he seems more interested. The chief of security (Halston Sage) is a petite 23-year-old with super strength. The science and engineering officer (Mark Jackson) is part of a “legendarily racist” species, although through the first two hourlong episodes he doesn’t actually say anything racist. And the second officer (Peter Macon) comes from an all-male planet and only urinates once a year.
The potty humor lands right in MacFarlane’s sweet spot. Sunday’s premiere contains more references to balls than an inventory check at a sporting goods store. And, during a video chat with a scientist in distress, there’s a dog in the background licking himself. In case you somehow miss it, the navigator asks, “You see that dog in the background licking (himself)?” “First thing I saw,” the helmsman replies.
The crew wouldn’t be complete without a first officer, which is where Kelly comes in. Get it? Ed’s ex is his XO! It’s like the pitch for a screwball comedy without the screwball. Or the comedy.
Fifteen years ago, Fox had an hourlong series that was a mix of sci-fi and humor. It was called “Firefly,” it hailed from Joss Whedon, and the network couldn’t have known less what to do with it.
Fox marooned it on Friday nights and aired the episodes out of their intended order, making the action difficult to follow. The pilot — you know, the episode that introduces the characters, the world and sets up all the conflict — was broadcast as the 11th and final installment.
Max Bialystock (a character from “The Producers”) couldn’t have done more to sabotage a show. Yet “Firefly” still has legions of enthusiastic fans known as Browncoats.
“The Orville,” meanwhile, is being given a jumpstart on the new fall season with as big of a promotional push as possible: special airings this Sunday and next directly following NFL doubleheaders.
There’s some genuinely funny repartee in Sunday’s premiere, directed by Jon Favreau. And the show’s sci-fi bona fides come courtesy of executive producer Brannon Braga (“Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: Enterprise”).
But the second episode doesn’t even attempt to be funny. At least I don’t think it does. It plays more like MacFarlane and crew trying to faithfully re-create some of those forgettable syndicated sci-fi series from decades past the same way Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig played it mostly straight with their Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption.”
“The Orville” isn’t funny enough to be a comedy or technologically advanced enough to be respectable science fiction.
It’s neither fish nor fowl.
It’s closer to some sort of “Island of Dr. Moreau” experiment.
A flounderpigeon, perhaps.
Early fall TV
“The Orville” is the first broadcast show out of the gate this fall.
While dates are subject to change, ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” is up next on Sept. 18, followed by Fox’s “Gotham” on Sept. 21. CBS’ “60 Minutes” is scheduled to bow Sept. 24.
The bulk of new and returning fall shows will begin airing Sept. 25, the start of the traditional premiere week.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.