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"Outer Space Astronauts": More Like Outer Space As[censored]s

Crude, ugly, and about as funny as a head wound, SyFy’s Outer Space Astronauts suggests that the network’s ability to make with the ha-ha’s is about on a par with its ability to spell. In both cases, you can see what SyFy is aiming at, and you can see that it means to be hip and clever and subversive and ironic, but in both cases the results are merely pathetic.

Outer Space Astronauts chronicles the misadventures of the crew of the Oklahoma, the starship that has been voted “Most Fun” in the Earth fleet. (Maybe the juxtaposition of “Oklahoma” and “most fun” is the writers’ idea of a joke; if so, it’s about as successful as their other attempts at wit.) And who are the space chimps that make this particular barrel such a non-stop riot of mirth? Stop me if you’ve seen this cast of characters before: the lazy, drunken captain; the tightly wound executive officer; the sassy-but-incompetent female technical officer; the “cool” leather-jacketed navigator; the manly, porn-stachioed security chief; the sexy alien babe who only speaks fractured English …

As for their adventures: Well, in “Diplomatic Hat” the captain unwisely rolls out the welcome mat for a bunch of aliens who are transparently hostile. In “Of Cannibals and Cuddlepuffs” the crew is manhandled by a tribble-like cutie that wants to take over the ship. “Vast Emptiness” chronicles the aftermath of a party lubricated by some bad alien hooch. And “One Year Ago” is a flashback about how the straight-arrow XO came to be mixed up with the anarchic crew.

The show’s frat-boy stabs at humor might be excused if any of the jokes were actually funny. (“Hey Ba’artor,” a zoned-out Captain Ripley greets an alien delegate. “I see you speak the language of Earth—English. You speak it real good. [Belches; laughs] I think I just said something in your language.”) I’m not even sure some of the exchanges were jokes (“Sunny, I’m going to have to cancel tonight. I’m exhausted.” “Oh, poo!”), but I’m at a loss to know what they could have otherwise been. In the premises of some episodes (like the tribble-icious “Cuddlepuffs”) you can see a pale glimmer of a satire on science-fiction conceits, but these parodies are only notional and don’t go anyplace. Mostly it’s just a lot of too-familiar riffs on lust, sloth, drunkenness, laziness, incompetence, incontinence, boobery, buggery, and cross-dressing.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with or unfunny about such gags, as Adult Swim regularly proves. But that’s the problem. This is basically an Adult Swim show that misfires so badly you can only gape.

Sophomoric writing aside, a lot of the trouble can be traced to the show’s peculiar visuals. Outer Space Astronauts uses some weird fusion of live-action and limited CGI to put the heads of real actors onto animated bodies. Aesthetically, the results aren’t quite as ludicrous as the old Clutch Cargo shorts, though they are almost as creepy. But it’s the humor that really gets squashed by the technique. Deadpan dialogue that might be edgily stupid when uttered by Sealab 2021‘s deadpan Captain Murphy sounds merely stupid when it comes out of a real human face. Partly this is because the actors just aren’t good enough to “sell” the material expressively. But it’s also because the material and the medium are subtly at war with each other. The actors are just too “real” to sell the material as Simpson-esque “cartoon sitcom” humor, but the visuals are also too stylized to sell it as SNL-style “sketch comedy.” The results just look embarrassingly amateurish.

The show is created and directed by Russell Barrett (who also plays Captain Ripley), and most of the other actors double as writers on different episodes, so if the show leaves you overcome by a desire to punch someone, rest assured you would be justified in smacking around almost anyone on screen. It doesn’t help that, as a full thirty-minute program, a typical episode runs twice as long as an Adult Swim short, which gives you plenty of time to fantasize about hurting someone.

Frankly, Outer Space Astronauts feels like it was ordered up by network suits who thought that a Sealab or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast knockoff would appeal to their key demos, but who were afraid that an out-and-out cartoon would look weird on their schedule. Chalk it up as another brilliant decision by a network with real insecurity issues.

Outer Space Astronauts premieres on SyFy on Tuesday, December 8, at 9:30pm (ET/PT).

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