Monday, September 12, 2016

Pilot Review: Son of Zorn

Son of Zorn (Sundays at 8:30 on Fox, beginning September 25)

Smell that? It's the beginning of the fall season. That mixture of hope and excitement and dread is beginning to fill the air as we wait in anticipation to see what the networks have in store for us this season. For the first time in many years, there are no new comic book adaptations or superhero shows on the fall schedule; but Fox has given us something comic book-adjacent with Son of Zorn, a half-animated, half-live action series about a He-Man looking cartoon character who leaves his animated island to reconnect with the live action world of his ex-wife and teenage son.

Yeah, that other thing you smell? That waft of dank, fecal unpleasantness? It's this show.

In a new iteration of the very traditional sitcom "fish out of water" setup, Son of Zorn sees warrior Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) leaving his life as protector of the island Zephyria to spend the weekend in Orange County with his son Alangulon, aka Alan (Superstore's Johnny Pemberton), for his seventeenth birthday. When he finds his ex-wife Edie (Emmy nominee Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm) shacking up with a new beau named Craig (SNL vet Tim Meadows) who is Zorn's opposite in every way, and when he realizes how badly Alan needs a father figure, Zorn decides to stay, ensuring much hilarity to ensue. Because Zorn is animated. Get it?

The central visual gag and the source of almost every joke in the pilot is that Zorn is a cartoon. He talks about weird shit like mountain trolls and birds you can ride like Falkor, and he runs around in a loincloth with a sword strapped to his hip. But no one blinks an eye. There is no visual shock anywhere when a character sees or interacts with Zorn. (There is some visual shock for the audience, though, because the purposefully unsophisticated animation looks terrible against the live background, sometimes complete with that awkward green screen "halo" that accompanies cheap production values.) When a waitress asks Zorn how he wants his steak cooked, there's no reaction when "not" is his answer. Whereas the humor could come from someone absolutely freaking out because there's a seven-foot cartoon sitting in a restaurant ordering raw meat, it actually comes from Alan confessing to his father that he's a vegetarian, which is considerably less funny. (This scene does garner the episode's only truly funny line: after Alan tells the waitress he loves ginger in his drinks, Zorn says, "You know what I drink? The blood of my fallen enemies out of the skulls of their children.") Similarly, Zorn's boss doesn't blink an eye at his past non-employment; his animated friends call him on his cell phone to give updates from Zephyria. It's all so bizarre and undefined. What are the laws of this alternate world where cartoons occupy real space? Zephyria is entirely animated; are other locations as well? I assume, based on character reactions, that animated people populating the live action world is commonplace. Does that mean we will see other animated characters down the line? If they're so common, why have we not seen others yet? I mean, we see Alan at school, and no one else is animated. Neither is anyone at the restaurant, or in the neighborhood, or at Zorn's new job. I don't get it.

I'd be able to forgive how weird it is if the concept worked better, but it doesn't. The conceit of Zorn being exasperated by the live action world is stupid considering we know he has been in it before. This isn't his first trip to Orange County; Edie tells us that Zorn has visited something like five other weekends ("once every three years," is what she says, I believe). So why does he act like he doesn't understand the customs of the live action world? Why does he not realize that it's inappropriate to give his son a predatory bird as his first vehicle? How does he not know that women are legally equal and can hold positions of authority? There's very little logic applied here, and very little humor on top of it. The joke of seeing a giant animated an interacting with the live action world already wore thin by the end of the pilot, and it's only one of thirteen episodes. I can't imagine this premise sustaining itself over a full season, especially when it can barely sustain itself over half an hour. The show will have to evolve in major ways (perhaps other animated characters will be introduced, or the live characters will travel to an animated place) to avoid becoming obnoxiously repetitive, but even then, the show's bones are brittle. The plot rests entirely on the premise of Zorn reacting poorly to his surroundings, and how much longer can that last?

And there's not much hope for that. Creators Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne, both of whom were writers on the FX series Wilfred, exited as showrunners earlier this year, about halfway through production. Both cited "creative differences" as the reason, which can't be encouraging since they are, you know... the actual creators. Plus, executive producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord have their hands insanely full with a new season of their show The Last Man on Earth debuting the same night as Son of Zorn, and three Lego Movie sequels in various stages of development (as well as Men in Black 3, a new animated Spider-Man project, and the live-action comedy Brigsby Bear currently filming). How hands on will they be able to be in guiding this series? The prognosis isn't great for Zorn's future.

If there's one thing to recommend here, it's the cast. Sudeikis is a strong voice actor, unsurprising since he cut his teeth on The Angry Birds Movie this summer, and Hines can make almost anything funny. Meadows is the stand-out, though, with his combination of observational wit (Craig is the only character who seems to find Zorn's presence odd). Pemberton is appropriately awkward, and Scandal's Artemis Pebdani has fun in a few too-brief scenes. But they're not enough to entice me back for another episode. Son of Zorn is about as weak in execution as it sounds like it would be on paper. It mines the same visual gag over and over for humor and comes up short every time.

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