Friday, September 9, 2016

TV REVIEW: FOX's 'Son of Zorn'

FOX will premiere its new original comedy series Son of Zorn in a special preview on Sunday, September 11 at 8/7c. It makes its regular time slot debut on Sunday, September 25 at 8:30/7:30c. The comedy stars Jason Sudeikis, Johnny Pemberton, Cheryl Hines, Tim Meadows and Artemis Pebdani.

Read on for my thoughts on the live action/animated hybrid after screening its first episode.

It continues to be so frustrating when networks only send out one episode of their new shows to critics for review. The fall season is just getting started. It's the time of year when the broadcast networks return with a passion. Every network is trying to launch something over the next few months. It's an exciting part of the year. Cable and streaming understand that it takes a couple of episodes for anyone to really figure out and form a comprehensive opinion on a new show. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes all it takes is less than one episode to make an opinion. But in the case of Son of Zorn, one episode just isn't enough to judge what this series actually is. It's a premise pilot that sticks to one-joke characters with absolutely no depth. There's a hint at weirdness that could really define the humor moving forward. But there's no certainty that such an evolution will take place. There's the hope that it will. Without seeing future episodes though, it's hard to get a grasp on what this show looks like on a weekly basis and how it can grow from this somewhat awkward start.

The entertainment industry is no stranger to the character trope of a buffoonish or idiotic man who somehow also is the man in the charge. There have been many different shows and movies over the years with that premise. A man who just doesn't have the capacity to understand the world around him. A cartoonish man who's obliviousness drives the comedy of the actual story. It's a story audiences have seen before. It's been done well and with purpose to. It's a well storytellers go back to frequently because it has worked before. That's the exact premise of Son of Zorn. The key twist with this show though is that the leading man is actually a cartoon character. This trope has frequently seemed cartoonish and over-the-top. And now, it has actually been fitted into that format.

Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) is the leader of a group of warriors on the island of Zephyria. A world that is completely animated. However, it's actually just an island in the Pacific that anyone could travel to by plane. It's not a different dimension or an alien world. It's just a part of this universe that everyone knows exists. When the rest of the world sees Zorn, they don't see an animated character. They just see a large man only wearing a loin cloth and swinging a sword around. The humor of the story comes from Zorn traveling from Zephyria to Orange County to reconnect with his live action family. That includes his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines) and their son, Alangulon (Johnny Pemberton). Zorn returns with these big dreams of his son having turned out just like him. He's hit with a massive reality check when he comes into this regular world and no one acts like he does. Of course, he still seems incredulous about everything. To him, he's right and everyone else is wrong. But that doesn't create a genuine bond with his family. In fact, it's really alienating to them because Edie and Alangulon - who prefers to go by Alan - don't believe they are anything like Zorn.

Of course, Zorn's mannerisms can be really off-putting and aren't as funny as the premiere thinks they are. Animation and live action are two very different forms of comedy. Animation can get away with things that live action cannot. The reverse is also true. So, it's a delicate balance to try and bring these two concepts together. It's admirable that the creative team is trying. It's just not a balance that works at all in the premiere. The focus is too much on Zorn's wild hijinks. He's adjusting to the world. He's trying to be a bigger part of his family's lives. But the premiere instead gets distracted by Zorn refusing to accept Edie's new fiancé Craig (Tim Meadows) or believe that his boss at his new job selling soap dispensers is actually a woman (Artemis Pebdani). Those moments show just how out of touch with reality Zorn is. But the show only goes surface level deep with these issues. There's an inherent sadness to Zorn realizing just how much he has messed up with his family. It just doesn't seem like the show is interested in telling that story. It sets up that Zorn's life isn't as fantastic as he believes it is. He has a growing bald spot and his castle in Zephyria can just be rented out for a couple hundred dollars a night. The war that he and his fellow soldiers are fighting is increasingly meaningless. There's no reason why he should have left in the first place. But he did and is now facing reality. The show would just rather focus on the light and breezy aspects of this story though. It's a premiere with zingers and not a whole lot of emotion.

Zorn is the prime focus of the show too. So, him being a one-dimensional character just really hinders the first episode. There's not a whole lot the supporting cast can do to change those limitations. Hines does her best but Edie is basically just the latest wet blanket wife who doesn't want to be reminded of her party days. Meadows has proven himself to be an exceptional straight man over the years in comedic situations. It's a truly wonderful skill set to watch. He does have a couple really funny line deliveries here about how Zorn frequently emasculates him. But there's hardly enough to change the structure of the show. Meanwhile, Pemberton really is the co-lead because the main story is about Zorn trying to bond with Alan again. He's largely just playing the kid who wants to be normal but has this extraordinary part of his life keeping him from doing anything. He may be more like Zorn than it first appears. And yet, there's nothing to suggest this being a breakout role for him.

It may take awhile for the show to find its footing as well. Series creators Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne have both stepped down as co-showrunners. Creative differences over the direction of the series was to blame. And now, Sally McKenna has stepped up to fill that role. Her contributions could become invaluable to the series. It's just not apparent when her influence will actually be felt because this transition happened in the middle of production on the first few episodes. The show is getting a pretty sizable preview this Sunday by airing after the big football game. But then what? How will it do in its regular slot behind The Simpsons where it can't always get the boost of football? The Sunday lineup does feel like the perfect place for this show. It's just struggling to find its identity which could be so damaging out of the gate. Audiences form their opinions quickly and concisely. If the early episodes don't pop, it's hard for the show to win back those viewers. The premiere is problematic. So this could be the start of an uncertain future for Son of Zorn.