NEW YORK >> “The Orville” could prove doubly surprising for viewers.
First, because it’s a lavish retro-futuristic sci-fi hour boasting elements of drama, comedy, adventure, even the occasional Big Thought. Not exactly your typical TV concoction.
Second, because it’s the brainchild of Seth MacFarlane, who at 43 continues to be lionized (and scorned by some) as the enfant terrible behind cheeky hits like Fox’s long-running animated sitcom “Family Guy” and the two “Ted” stuffed-bear romps.
“I come out of comedy, and this is my first foray into quote-unquote drama,” MacFarlane allows. “But I do feel like I’m very, very well-versed in science fiction. I’ve been reading it and watching it my whole life.”
And now — as creator, writer, an executive producer and leading man — he’s launching the sci-fi series he says he dreamed about even before his breakout success with “Family Guy” while still in his early 20s. A show that HE would want to watch. A show he says he sees no one else doing. (“The Orville” will premiere on Fox on Sept. 10, then air the following Sunday before settling into its Thursday berth on Sept. 21.)
Set 400 years in the future, the series travels with the U.S.S. Orville, described as “a mid-level exploratory spaceship,” with MacFarlane as its captain, Adrianne Palicki as his first officer (and, awkwardly, his adulterous ex-wife), plus a diverse crew of humans and aliens played by Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon and others in a sizable cast.
If all that sounds a bit like the original “Star Trek,” so be it: MacFarlane speaks of watching “Star Trek” as a youngster with his dad; he took a class, “The Philosophy of ‘Star Trek,’” in college. And now he’s doing it himself, with a series that aims to reinstate some of that bygone sci-fi wonder to a genre that now routinely views the future with a measure of dread.
“Can you ‘casualize’ science fiction — that’s the only word I can come up with — and still tell a meaningful story within the genre?” he wonders aloud during a whirlwind New York visit this week. “That’s something I haven’t seen.”
Of course, neither MacFarlane nor anyone else has yet glimpsed the series that might claim closest kinship to “The Orville.” That would be the new “Star Trek” revival premiering on the CBS All Access subscription service on Sept. 24. But MacFarlane expects “Star Trek: Discovery” to go boldly in its own new “Star Trek” direction, while “The Orville” will be, in his words, “a little more old school.”
One difference for sure: “Discovery” will be the first “Star Trek” to be serialized, while “The Orville” episodes will each be self-contained — “a little movie each week,” MacFarlane says.
He started writing the season’s 13 episodes back in spring 2016. Filming began in March and wrapped two weeks ago. Postproduction continues. Seven days a week without a break.
“You throw yourself into something like this,” he says cheerfully, “and then you put it out there and you’re just so exposed — and that’s part of the fun of it. But it takes a strong constitution.”
Speaking of exposed, “The Orville” puts MacFarlane in the spotlight every week, in contrast to voicing, off-screen, several “Family Guy” characters and his many other behind-the-scenes roles.
“When it feels right, acting is no different than writing or directing to me,” he declares. “I did a lot of theater as a kid. I did stand-up for a while. That need, to some degree, is in my blood.
“And I also felt like being able to walk out on camera and communicate that I truly love being on the bridge of that ship, with a Julie Andrews degree of effervescence” — the bridge of The Orville is his “Sound of Music” mountaintop — “why WOULDN’T I? It’s just too much fun NOT to!”
But MacFarlane makes clear that this is more than a matter of fun-and-games. For him, a lot is riding on this spacecraft and he’s not afraid to say so, though with a smile, his gleaming smile that seems to certify MacFarlane as a creature of uncanny self-assurance — even when hosting the Oscars or channeling Sinatra in concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
“That,” he laughs, “is a defense mechanism. I spend every day in crippling self-doubt. I hide it very well.”
Right now he owns up to certain doubts about how viewers will receive him as a live-action hero on a TV space odyssey: “Are they going to allow this kind of a departure from what I’ve done before? Or is it going to be, ‘No, keep making the cartoons, and we’ll be happy’?” Where “The Orville” is concerned, “I feel self-assurance that I’ve done everything that I can do, and that what the show is meant to be, it is. But I’m a nervous wreck about everything else.”
“This is arguably the most important thing to me that I’ve done since I came out to Hollywood,” he says. “I want people to love this show, because I loved writing it, I loved shooting it. I loved doing it with all my heart. And I want to do more.”