One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
As one of the boldest and bravest new comedies this season (and, maybe, of the last few years), Fox’s new single-camera sitcom Son of Zorn disappointingly falls back on a few expected sources of humor in a way that all-too-often negates the bravura, bananas premise of the show. Set initially in the far-off island land of Zephyria, Son of Zorn eventually migrates into the real world – California in particular – while keeping the animated sprites of anything related to Zephyria’s Saturday morning, G.I. Joe day-dreamscape very much intact.
There’s wonder in that, in the way that co-creators Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne constantly come up with interesting and surprising bits of Zephyria to throw into the real world, but the wonder stops short of awe – and awesomeness – for every dud of a joke. And, in a comedy pilot, there’s unfortunately long dry spells between the winning, irreverent humor that producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have infused into every other project they’ve touched.
But it’s definitely not for a lack of trying, especially on the part of Zorn himself (Jason Sudeikis), who’s got the dysfunctional sitcom dad bits nailed down. Deciding to put his life of battle and slaughter and questing for something called the “Staff of Quib” on pause, Zorn takes a flight out of Zephyria to revisit his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines) and their son Alangulon (Johnny Pemberton), who prefers to be called Alan now. To add to Zorn’s family problems, Edie has a new fiancé named Craig (Tim Meadows), who’s slowly pulled Edie out of she and Zorn’s heyday (apparently a five-some with mountain trolls was involved) and into suburban normalcy.
In an attempt to level with his family’s newfound picket-fence blandness, Zorn decides to stay a while in town, rent an apartment, nab a job at the local industrial soap dispensary, field weird questions from his female boss Linda (Artemis Pebdani), whom he believes to be a man dressed as a woman, and finally figure out the perfect present for Alan’s birthday (not a brain gouger, it turns out). That’s where Son of Zorn kicks into gear, intersecting the normalcy of sitcom clichés, like a dysfunctional divorced couple and their kid, with the high-concept animation that lies somewhere between the eerie seamlessness of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the humorous apathy of Ted.
Fortunately, Son of Zorn gets most of its laughs out of those apathetic glances and opinions from every live action cast member surrounding Zorn and his brightly colored friends. Although some backstory would have been welcome regarding the existence of Zephyria and its relation to our world, the decision to have everyone around Zorn as flippant and uncaring of his existence as any other person you sit next to on a plane was a winning one. Increasing mileage is drawn from his attire (I laughed, maybe the most in the pilot, from one silent scene in a laundry mat) to his various action figure-like battle accessories, which receive as much shock and ire in a quiet Vegan restaurant as any normal person would get when brandishing a bracelet dagger.
It’s in the minute-to-minute dialogue that Son of Zorn is lacking, choosing to rely on lazy, expected pop culture humor and failing to score the weirdness of its set-up with appreciably gonzo laughs. There’s moments of vertiginous silliness when Zorn – an animated, six-foot-five barbarian in a fur diaper – references Speed, or places his castle on Zephyria’s alternative to Airbnb, but they don’t prop up the dead spots that the pilot is filled with.
Humor is mostly of the machismo kind, sprouting from Zorn to Craig (because he’s an online professor), Edie, and Linda, but the lines lack the acerbic wit and outlandishness of Lord and Miller’s own work. As creators of this world, Agnew and Jorne have the wacky vision and just enough deftness needed to make Zorn believable in the first place, but they lack madcap spark. They’ve built the house – there’s just nothing particularly interesting inside of it yet.
Yet is the key word. One episode was made available to review, so the chance for Son of Zorn to eke out for itself a sturdy place in the fall TV season is definitely possible. There’s no weak player among any of the cast, real or animated, although Hines and Meadows aren’t doing anything particularly surprising that we haven’t seen before from them, or other sitcoms with similar characters. Sudeikis’s voice, which strides the line between intimidating baritone and goofy idiot, is essentially perfect for the role, and even in an animated/live-action relationship, he has nice chemistry with Pemberton, who ends Son of Zorn‘s pilot on what might be its most promising, WTF moment.
It’s just too bad the rest of the opening episode wasn’t filled with such assuredness. There are glimpses of scenes and traces of dialogue that hint at something cunning and clever coming, but Son of Zorn has too many battle axes and hidden daggers in its hands to be able to handle the swift, subtle touches that premises so out-there crazy need to be executed properly. The show could turn into something surprising and special down the line – it at least has a good set-up and hints of mythology to build on – but the hard truth is that its animated deadbeat dad premise feels long in the tooth after just 22 minutes, much less the 13 episodes coming over the course of season 1.
Crackling producer duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller's golden touch is nowhere to be seen in Son of Zorn, which crafts a well-realized world, but doesn't have anything interesting, surprising, or even all that funny to say.