In Fox’s new animated-live-action hybrid series Son Of Zorn, an animated-live-action hybrid teen boy reunites with his fuck-up father, a He-Man-like defender of macho masculinity eager to make up for years of neglecting his son. Despite his literal two-dimensionality, Zorn embodies typical sitcom tropes: a bad dad trying to make good, a fish out of water, and a jealous ex-husband. Son Of Zorn doesn’t look like anything else on television, but at its core, it’s a very traditional family sitcom.
Voiced by Jason Sudeikis, Zorn is arrogant, temperamental, and stubborn – but he’s trading in his life of decapitating baddies and crushing skulls to settle in Orange County, where his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines) and teen son Alan (Johnny Pemberton) live. Awkward and soft, Alan is pretty much a George Michael Bluth derivative, but Pemberton nails some of the more emotional parts of the pilot. Alan squirms at his dad’s bravado and lack of clothing, and rightfully so. Zorn is a tone-deaf asshole who thinks nothing of waving weapons around on a restaurant patio and can’t fathom the mere concept of vegetarianism.
Zorn’s too busy flexing to understand his shortcomings as a father, and the pilot almost has something to say about his toxic masculinity, but it doesn’t quite get there. Son Of Zorn will quickly run out of fuel if it just repeatedly reinforces Zorn as this macho idiot, even when there are brief hints at his wanting to change. The traditional family sitcom format works for now, but Son Of Zorn needs to stand out more if it’s going to roll with such a familiar structure. Sure, it’s the only show on television with an animated dude thrown into a live-action world, but that runs the risk of just being gimmicky if there isn’t more depth to the creative decision. In its pilot, Son Of Zorn doesn’t impress so much as show that it’s got potential. And when television is as saturated as it is now, that’s not enough. It’s not enough to just make Zorn an exaggerated version of the tropes he embodies. Son Of Zorn has so much room to critique masculinity, but it isn’t quite there yet.
Zorn’s violent outbursts and jacked-up sexism embody the very real and very dangerous side effects of toxic masculinity that exist in our world. Sure, Son Of Zorn takes those traits and blows them into cartoonish proportions, but Zorn is more real than a drawing, and Son Of Zorn will be a much smarter and more compelling show if it starts to explore the idea that Zorn isn’t as far-fetched as he seems, grounding him in our reality. BoJack Horseman does this incredibly well, using its animated world to embellish and exaggerate but still making its characters and their situations wholly relatable with clear analogs to real life. Zorn needs to be more than just a caricature for it to work, too. It’s tough to build a show around a character that seems so one-note.
On a humor level, at least, the pilot does play around with its familiar format. The episode ends on a very typical sitcom note: The estranged father gifts his son with a new car in order to win him over, which the mother of course disapproves of. Son Of Zorn spins that premise into madness: Instead of a shiny new sports car, Zorn presents Alan with a super scary, oversized animated killer falcon. In this case, Edie’s disapproval seems totally valid, and when she asks Zorn to return it, he violently stabs it in the neck until it dies in the driveway. It’s absurd, but Son Of Zorn could stand to be a lot more absurd.
That’s especially apparent in the character of Edie, who comes off as a typical sitcom mom in the worst way possible. In the pilot, she’s the nagging ex-wife and nurturing mother who still has a small soft spot for her man-baby of an ex-husband who doesn’t seem to really exist outside of her relationships with the men on the show. The only hint at any kind of character development for her that we get in the pilot is a quick line about her wild past with Zorn. Peeling back Edie’s layers will be crucial to Son Of Zorn’s success moving forward. Throwing an animated character shouldn’t be the only way Son Of Zorn fucks with the conventional sitcom format. That’s not enough to make it memorable. Let’s see it fuck with gendered sitcom tropes, too. Plus, Hines is a lot funnier than the pilot makes her seem.
Tim Meadows swoops in for a surprise sneak attack as the show’s MVP. Playing Edie’s new boyfriend Craig, he brings another familiar character type (the sensitive and understanding new boyfriend that’s in every way different from the ex-husband) to life. He makes Craig more than your typical sitcom character with just the right amount of weirdness. Craig is bizarrely the most interesting character in the pilot, and sure, a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s Tim Meadows, but it also has to do with the fact that he’s written with a little less rigidity than the other characters.
Son Of Zorn hasn’t cracked its own formula yet. It’s too comfortable in its family sitcom skin. There’s nothing particularly challenging or exciting about it, other than its aesthetic.