In 1989, The Simpsons became the first successful primetime animated series since The Flintstones. Ever since, Fox has been trying to replicate that show’s triumph, to mixed results. For every Futurama, there’s a Sit Down, Shut Up; for every King of the Hill, an Allen Gregory; for every Family Guy, a Napoleon Dynamite. There’s even more pressure when you’re directly following The Simpsons, at the 8:30 p.m. ET timeslot. This season, that honor belongs to Son of Zorn, a high concept live-action/animated comedy from Wilfred writers Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne.
So, which is it: is Son of Zorn more of a Bob’s Burgers or a The PJs?
The pilot (which airs this Sunday, Sept. 11), makes it seem like it could go either way. There’s a ton of possibility, but the show could also fall into a predictable rut. The premise is certainly inspired. Jason Sudeikis voices Zorn, a He-Man-like character who defends the island nation of Zephyria at the expense of his family — which includes his ex-wife (the always game Cheryl Hines) and 17-year-old son Alan (Johnny Pemberton) — in Orange County. He’s not a deadbeat dad, exactly, just a guy who’s busy murdering bad guys with his sword. That’s part of the show’s problem: It’s not sure who to root for.
Do we want Zorn to continue mastering the universe, or do we want to see him settle down, get a boring job, and live in a tiny apartment, all so he can be closer to his son? A son, it’s worth noting, who doesn’t seem to think it’s awesome that his dad is a mountain of a man who can literally choke a giant hawk to death. If I were in that kid’s place, I’d be proud to have a father like Zorn, even if I only saw him once every couple of years. (Also, there are other animated characters on the show, but do any of them come to our world? Does anyone else have a cartoon parent? Where’s She-Ra?) Besides, Alan has a pretty solid soon-to-be stepfather waiting at home. That role is played by Tim Meadows, and unsurprisingly, he’s the best thing about Son of Zorn.
Tim Meadows is a delight. The Ladies Man is better than you remember, his role in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the great comedy performances of the 2000s, and he’s a scene-stealer in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. He’s not in Zorn much, but he kills the few lines he has with his trademark deadpan silliness. Sudeikis, fresh off an acclaimed stint on Last Man on Earth, is also very good, providing the title character with just the right amount of endearing bravado. Speaking of Last Man: Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the geniuses behind 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie, are listed as executive producers on both that show and this one. And they, along with the cast (including Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Hines), are why I think Zorn will eventually work. Right now, the show’s too beholden to its premise; most of the jokes are situation based, with the humor coming from a cartoon character in a live-action world. Zorn needing more toilet paper than the average human is amusing, but only to a point. It, once again, reminds me of Last Man of Earth, which used its first episode to establish the world, before settling into a character-based groove. Zorn has the same potential.
But even if Son of Zorn never finds the best version of itself, we should still be happy that Fox is willing to take a chance on a show so out there. Can you imagine a He-Man parody on CBS, awkwardly wedged into a promo with The Big Bang Theory, Kevin Can Wait, and Man with a Plan? There’s something to be said for giving an opportunity to a series that could be wonderfully bonkers, instead of definitely boring, and that something is: Fox has the power.