'The Orville' beams into space between 'Trek' homage and spoof

(CNN)As the creator of "Family Guy" and "American Dad," Seth MacFarlane has earned plenty of money for Fox, which probably bought him the right to an indulgence like "The Orville." Still, this "Star Trek"-inspired show feels caught between dimensions -- too earnest to work as a "Galaxy Quest"-like spoof, too silly to play as a straight homage, and thus unsatisfying as either.

The timing also seems a little off, what with a new "Trek" incarnation beaming out via CBS All Access later this month. For all that, "The Orville" isn't a complete lost cause, with the third previewed episode actually containing a clever sci-fi allegory, though it will take a lot more of that to prevent the show from being jettisoned off DVR queues.
Set 400 years in the future, the series stars MacFarlane as Capt. Ed Mercer, an officer in the interstellar fleet who finally gains the right to command a starship populated by a crew of assorted humans and aliens.
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    The task is quickly (and tediously) complicated, however, when he's assigned his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), as his first officer, after she broke his heart by cheating on him with an alien species. A tiresome barrage of jokes about intergalactic infidelity ensues.
    After that, well, "The Orville" (named after the ship) is a fairly episodic litany of Trek-esque adventures, much of which is played with unexpected earnestness. Indeed, the look of the show -- from the spaceships to the makeup, the production design to the costumes -- is almost a slavish recreation with modest wrinkles, to the point where one begins to wonder how it all cleared legal.
    Seemingly mindful of his reputation, MacFarlane (who shares producer credit with, among others, "Trek" alumnus Brannon Braga) keeps dashing off sarcastic one-liners, but the comedy does at least as much to undermine the drama as to establish the show as fully realized satire.
    Frankly, MacFarlane would have done himself a favor by casting a different leading man. Then again, few of the other characters particularly pop, among them Scott Grimes as Ed's wisecracking pal and Halston Sage as an alien with extraordinary strength.
    And yet, that aforementioned third episode is a notable cut above, with an extremely provocative plot: a crew member who's part of a single-gender, all-male alien race gives birth to a baby, yielding consequences that parallel real-world controversies about genetics and sexual identity. It's the kind of science fiction at which "Star Trek" often excelled.
    That hour provides a ray of hope for the show, but it also underscores the difficulty of consistently maintaining such an awkward construct. Because while "The Orville" clearly demonstrates its fondness for a show that promised to boldly go where others hadn't, it feels like MacFarlane and his crew are taking a sizable step backwards.
    "The Orville" premieres Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. on Fox.