[This is a review of the Son of Zorn series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
With all of the success FOX has had with its Sunday night animated sitcoms like The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of the Hill, and Bob’s Burgers, it seems inevitable that the network would eventually try its hand at blending animation with the kind of live-action fare that typically makes up its programming the rest of the week. With that serving as all the impetus likely needed to greenlight a live-action/animation hybrid comedy like Son of Zorn, then, FOX has marked the new series for success, giving it a leg up on the other new shows this fall by scheduling it for an early, post-football double-header premiere before it moves to its regular time Sunday night timeslot on September 25.
That kind of move suggests there’s a lot of confidence in the somewhat hard-to-sell concept of a He-Man-esque animated character Zorn (with the voice of Jason Sudeikis) returning to California to be a father to his now-teenaged son Alan (Johnny Pemberton). In a way, the confidence makes sense. After all, the series is executive produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller who, in addition to producing FOX’s The Last Man on Earth are also attached to every hot geek-centric property coming out in the next few years, from an animated Spider-Man movie to The Flash feature film and even Star Wars, with a Han Solo… uh, solo film that’s currently in the works. But while Lord and Miller have amassed a considerable amount of cred through films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie, and 21 Jump Street, there’s little evidence of what made those successful present here.
What is immediately evident is that the concept and title are the beginning and end of just about all that’s engaging in the premiere. Hailing from creators Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne (Wilfred), Son of Zorn is reminiscent of the Seth-Grahame Smith books and subsequent movie adaptations Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The joke is in the title and the zaniness of the premise, and the rest of the story fails to go any deeper than a surface-level exploration of that one idea. Like P&P&Z, Zorn is also an appropriation of another idea but with a twist. Smith’s book asked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Jane Austen wrote about zombies?” Meanwhile, Zorn asks, “Wouldn’t it be funny if He-Man were a deadbeat dad?”
Right now, the character of Zorn is little more than a familiar television archetype. He’s a buffoonish alpha male removed from a place where he is widely accepted and respected, an antiquated stereotype trying to adapt to world that is radically different to the one he hails from. Perhaps, then, the fact that he is literally a two-dimensional character is part of the joke. If so, good one; but again, you can’t help but ask: What else ya got? The premiere, ‘Return to Orange County’ doesn’t quite have an answer to that beyond a handful of disappointing gags about Zorn using dismembered hands for currency or thinking his female boss is a man dressed as a woman because he doesn’t understand women in a position of authority. Like the character’s mechanical sexism, Zorn’s status as a semi-estranged father isn’t anything audiences haven’t seen a million times before. And that makes the relationship between Zorn and his son incredibly difficult to become invested in.
Though only in his early 20s, Pemberton seems much older than the 17-year-old character he’s playing. Perhaps the joke, then, is that Alan not only looks nothing like his cartoon father, but a fully-grown man is obviously playing the role of Alan. It’s funny in a way that mirrors Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum returning to high school in 21 Jump Street functioned as a meta-joke about casting actors older than the parts they’re playing. But because it’s not entirely apparent that’s the joke the show was aiming for the humor doesn’t have legs. Which brings us to the obvious question from the premiere’s closing moment: What is the point of the kid having animated legs? It’s a strange visual gag that ultimately means nothing since the show hasn’t demonstrated what’s important about being an animated character from Zephyria other than, well, being animated. Even then, no one seems to care that Zorn is a cartoon, so the revelation of Alan’s two-dimensional legs doesn’t hold much significance.
Like Pemberton, casting Sudeikis is an interesting choice. As an actor, his bread and butter seems to be that of the good-looking everyman (slightly smarmy and otherwise), so while his voice being applied to an animated barbarian who likes Hot Pockets is somewhat funny for how antithetical it is, it requires the viewer to visualize Sudeikis behind Zorn’s hulking body and flowing red locks for the joke to work. Even then, the humor isn’t derived from anything Zorn does that’s not also entirely reliant on pointing out the absurdity of the character. And that seems to be an issue with the show across the board: the jokes are rarely independent from the series’ conceit. When Zorn is struggling to re-connect with his son, the joke is that an animated barbarian is struggling to reconnect with his non-animated son. When Zorn is at his office day job, the joke is that an animated barbarian has a day job in an office.
The exception to this rule comes from the great Tim Meadows as Craig, the new husband of Zorn’s ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines). Meadows is handed a recurring gag where Craig, a psychology professor at an online school, is constantly emasculated by Zorn but that he recognizes it and points it out as a way of diffusing the situation and simultaneously calling to attention his own supposed shortcomings as a man. Aside from Meadows’ reactions and line readings being very funny in and of themselves, there’s a hint that Zorn has something to say about its title character’s worn-out antics and hopefully that is where the series is headed as it moves on.
In the end, the premiere of Son of Zorn is as hobbled by its attempt to set up and justify its premise as it is by the way so many of the jokes rely upon it entirely. With the explanation of the series’ conceit presumably out of the way, hopefully subsequent episodes will be able find something to explore that goes beyond simply laughing at its premise.
Son of Zorn moves into its regular timeslot on Sunday, September 25 with ‘Defender of Teen Love’ @8pm on FOX.