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‘Son of Zorn’ Leaves Reality Looking Lifeless

“Son of Zorn,” which premiered Sunday on Fox, stars Jason Sudeikis as Zorn, a He-Man-esque warrior from the island of Zephyria, seeking to reunite with his estranged family in California. Zorn quickly finds that his savage ways stand out in Orange County, and hilarity ensues. It would be a disgustingly standard fish-out-of-water comedy if not for one delightfully experimental twist: Zorn himself is an animated cartoon, while the rest of the sitcom is shot in live-action.

Before anything else, some credit is due here to 20th Century Fox for green-lighting such an unconventional production. Even if the result were entirely unwatchable—it’s not—the show would still be more interesting than the forgettable safe choices typical of network television.

But now the interesting question: What did this hybrid production look like on the screen? Long story short, animation blows reality out of the water. When Zorn’s onscreen, it’s hard to look at anything else. Even during the brief moments in which Zorn is not on camera, everyone and everything seems lifeless and washed out. Animated characters, it turns out, are more colorful, more exciting, and, ironically, more lively than any real person could possibly be.

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Needless to say, the unexpected pull of animation has an effect on the rest of the show. If Jason Sudeikis were actually standing there in the flesh, it would be clear what an obnoxious character Zorn is. And it seems that’s the intended structure of the show: Zorn’s ex-wife, Edie (Cheryl Hines), and his son, Alan (Johnny Pemberton), put up with his comic but frustrating impositions. Due to the animation effect, however, Zorn proves too irresistible to be obnoxious. When he gets bored with Edie’s fiancée, Craig (Tim Meadows), it’s hard to blame him: Craig is boring. When Zorn talks to Edie herself, it’s hard to remember that she is still on screen. Another time, Zorn takes Alan out to dinner and orders them both steaks. Asked how he would like them cooked, Zorn responds simply, “Not.” Alan announces then that he’s a vegetarian, because he, unlike his father, is “informed.” Everyone should of course be able to choose what they eat, but in that moment Alan comes off as totally unsympathetic. Throughout the premiere, in fact, Alan is whiny and self-absorbed.

If anything, “Son of Zorn” ends up as a somewhat unintentional critique of Orange County, with its endless rows of dull suburban houses. Zorn repeatedly tries and fails to talk to fellow passengers wearing headphones in planes and taxis, in a bit probably designed to show his tactlessness and lack of understanding of the modern world. But the passengers come off as much ruder than Zorn: Seen from the outside, listening to music and refusing to acknowledge the person sitting next to you scans as unfriendly and cold.

The only character not blown off the screen by Zorn is his new boss, Linda (Artemis Pebdani). Her success is largely due to framing; Zorn occupies a much smaller percentage of the screen during his scenes with her. But it also helps that Linda, instead of just expressing exasperation over Zorn’s hijinks, actually engages with him in a back and forth conversation.

“Son of Zorn” is probably not a show with staying power. Audiences are unlikely to care about Zorn’s quest to reunite with his estranged family when the structure of the show itself forces them into the background. An entire season seems like a stretch for this sitcom, let alone more than one. But a single episode? Fascinating.

—Staff writer J. Thomas Westbrook can be reached at thomas.westbrook@thecrimson.com.

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