This week, a racist, misogynist, stubborn bully became President-elect of the United States. Zorn isn’t exactly like Donald Trump, but Trump’s election has made Zorn much harder to watch. Maybe watching Son of Zorn should feel urgent, relevant, and thought-provoking in the new reality of Trump’s America. That might be the case if it were a smarter show with a clearer point of view on themes like gaslighting of women, and the privilege Zorn represents but never quite challenges. Instead, watching Son of Zorn this week felt particularly exhausting and borderline infuriating.
The audience is supposed to laugh at Zorn’s ignorance; the whole show is built around this sexist, unchanging, violent, close-minded man. But the audience is unfortunately not Edie, clinging to small signs that Zorn is capable of goodness. Watching Zorn barely get punished when he messes up again and again is too close a reflection on this year’s election campaigns. He’ll push everyone’s buttons and then give a self-pitying soliloquy about how he just wants to be a better dad. Lather, rinse, repeat. By crashing into his family’s life and convincing them that he’s improving when he clearly isn’t, Zorn effectively gaslights the few people in the world who try to care about him. It’s hard to not picture America in Edie’s place.
At least one character sees it. Edie’s mother Roberta (Jenny O’Hara) visits in the Thanksgiving episode: “The Battle Of Thanksgiving.” She hates Zorn and doesn’t want him ruining the holiday, accusing him of ruining Edie’s life and poisoning everything he touches (she’s not wrong). Zorn crashes dinner spectacularly, proving her right. Craig gives an impassioned speech on the importance of family and togetherness, but then things take a swift turn for the stupid when Zorn accidentally kills Roberta and has to bring her back to life by way of a Zephyrian potion and a prolonged kiss from Craig that’s played for big laughs and lands exactly zero.
NPR’s Sarah Koenig, known best as the host of the wildly popular podcast Serial, lends her voice to the world of Zorn for this episode. She narrates a fictional online documentary, The Mists of Brutality, about Zephyria that Robert recommends to everyone. The Mists of Brutality, which paints Zorn as a war criminal and humanizes his nemesis Vulchazor in flowery imagery and language, is one of the best bits of Zephyria backstory that this show has pulled off. It’s genuinely funny, thanks to Koenig playing it straight.
The Mists of Brutality bizarrely makes Zephyria feel more real — or, at least, more grounded — than it ever has. The more specific the show gets about Zephyria and the way it’s viewed by non-Zephyrians, the more distinctive Son of Zorn’s voice becomes. Zorn, ultimately, is an outsider, someone struggling to make other people understand his land and his people. Revealing that this character actually does struggle is consistently the best part of each episode. But the inherent contradictions in Zorn’s status as an outsider and as a bigot create a complex identity that is far beyond the scope of a show that thinks jokes about a dude not knowing how to put on pants are hilarious.
As it turns out, not even an NPR host can bring enough depth and intelligence to Son of Zorn to make it really seem tapped into society. This Thanksgiving episode presents the mere bones of a story about a dysfunctional family coming together against the odds. There isn’t any meat. Thanksgiving can be tough for families that don’t get along, and Son of Zorn understands that, but it doesn’t say anything real about it. The episode’s attempts to go deep and dark with the family drama fail, and Zorn’s antics are especially hard to laugh at in this moment in time. It’s too difficult for the audience to reconcile Zorn’s obvious flaws when they can see how those flaws might play out in the real world through the President-elect.