In the new Fox sitcom Son of Zorn, premiering Sept. 11, a vain and vapid glory hound leaves behind a land of heightened reality for more mundane environs and tries to reconnect with his family. You’ve seen this reboot fantasy before, just in different forms with different gimmicks. Most recently, Fox served it up in the form of The Grinder: Professional self-spoofer Rob Lowe played a self-absorbed TV star who had merged so completely with his signature role, a cliche lawyer, he’d become a figurative cartoon who had adopted his character’s dubious worldview. The pilot found him wanting more authenticity and humanity in his life, but being “The Grinder” was a hard thing to quit. And no one really wanted him to, anyway. The Grinder being The Grinder was so darn entertaining! Fred Savage fronted his “just folks” Idaho kin, whose lives had been hijacked by The Grinder’s disingenuous redemption narrative, stuck in a loop of frustration with and appreciation for his absurd antics. The teaming of Lowe and Savage played to our regard for two pop icons, the storytelling had a winning mix of conventional sitcom and high concept absurdity, and the comedy became increasingly meta — and quite limited in appeal. Not even the occasional impishness of Timothy Olyphant playing Timothy Olyphant could save it. I was sad when it was canceled. Son of Zorn has many things in common with The Grinder, and the well-executed pilot fills the Grinder-shaped hole in my heart, at least for a week. It captured my imagination and consistently made me laugh. It also had me constantly wondering how long the show will last.
In the same way The Grinder knowingly tapped nostalgia and winked at TV conventions, Son of Zorn plays to a certain generation’s childhood and geekery. It proposes that somewhere on this planet, there exists a cartoon continent called Zephyria, a pastiche of Masters of the Universe, Thundarr the Barbarian, and assorted other old school sci-fi/fantasy sword-and-sorcery amusements. Zorn is a He-Man cut-out, a beefcake barbarian with pop culture savvy. He uses a cell phone. He’s a fanboy for the movie Speed. But his five o’clock shadow, his windbag braggadocio, and his bleeped curses scruff him with swarthiness, making him a parody of swaggering machismo. He’s voiced by Jason Sudeikis in a funny, nimble, performance that mixes haughty pomp and tossed-off glibness in a way similar to what H. Jon Benjamin does on FX’s Archer. He makes you giggle with his tone even when the lines don’t.
RELATED: Hear what TV shows to watch and avoid this fall
Zorn might be a walking, talking 2D herculoid, but packed within his bulging codpiece is the ability to couple with living, breathing 3D humanoids. He once had a wild and crazy romance with Edie (Cheryl Hines) — notable misadventures include a fivesome with some mountain trolls — that culminated in a busted marriage and a son, Alan, full name Alangulon (Johnny Pemberton). Zorn rarely sees the lad because of his escapades in his native fantasyland. Man’s gotta work, you know. But what’s wrong with that? He’s a Master of the Universe! Does the world not exist for him? Does he not deserve our boundless grace and patient waiting? Such white male cartoon privilege! The throwback animation compliments the characterization. Zorn’s retro-drawn man-child is all tropes of retrograde masculinity rolled into one (don’t get this sexist started on female bosses). But he’s also the mad man in twilight: My fave telling detail about Zorn is the bald spot on the back of his head. Is it too late for this aging himbo to evolve and get real?
Son of Zorn is one more TV show about backward men retarding the cause of progress with their refusal to grow up or reconstruct. But maybe it wants to move this genre forward, too: it’s an offbeat, refreshing take on the (broken) family sitcom and deadbeat dad redemption story. In the pilot, Zorn leaves behind the wars and glories of nightmarish Zephyria for the sunny suburbs and bland sprawl of Orange County, California. It’s supposed to be a brief visit; his ambition is to celebrate Alan’s 17th birthday and get back to chasing his heroic destiny. (He’s three weeks late, but it’s the thought that counts, right?) He’s shell-shocked to discover the people he’s neglected have moved on or want different things. Edie is making a new life with her fiancé, Craig (Tim Meadows), a nerdy professor of psychology for an online college and new model empathetic man. Zorn loathes him, and the show pits their polar-opposite caricatures of manhood against each other.
Meanwhile, Alan’s a gentle vegetarian wrestling with fraught considerations of identity. He has more in common with his cartoon dad than he might like, but he’s certainly outgrown many things he once thought cool about him. The muscles. The golden broadsword. The hyper-violent, badass example. He wants an “adult relationship,” although he doesn’t yet know what that means. (Conversations about “jazz and birth control,” he presumes.) He resents Zorn for wanting to turn him into a meat-eating, head-bashing mini-me. When his father gives him a gift of a cartoon “brain gouger,” Alan rejects it. Zorn, stung, resolves to stay in the O.C., and so begins his flailing efforts to bond with his son and commence his own coming-of-age project.
The many scenes of Zorn operating within real environments and real actors are impressive. The sight gags are funny juxtapositions, whether it’s hulking Zorn crammed into an airplane seat trying to open a tiny packet of mustard with his fat fingers, or taking a dump on a small toilet in his new apartment, or trying to wrangle an animated “Death Hawk” in Edie’s driveway. Edie, Alan, and Craig have some lively interactions with Zorn, in large part because the actors were able to act with a stand-in, not a tennis ball on a stick. They were also permitted to improv (so was Sudeikis); the animation was produced after the fact, allowing the producers to tailor Zorn to the on-set work, not vice versa. Zorn isn’t a static object that waits his turn to talk during conversation. He smirks, he furrows his brow, he interjects, he gives nasty asides. The result is character-driven comedy and a surprising degree of verisimilitude. There’s room for improvement, for sure, but the pilot gives you no reason to believe that it can’t happen, provided the cast remains committed, the directing remains clever, and Zorn remains a dynamic, expressive visual.
The pilot suggests stories that’ll toggle between Zorn’s ongoing project of building a relationship with his son (and rekindling a romance with Edie) and struggling to tame himself by, say, taking a paper-shuffling, shirt-and-tie office job. The kingdom of Zephyria offers a rich source of crazy and complications in the form of visiting creatures, friends, enemies, lovers, and ex-lovers. The premise has the potential to satirize modern life, manhood, and a culture that caters to our inner child, that tells us childish things need not ever be put away, from cartoons to comic books to cosplay.
In this way, Son of Zorn might be able to be more interesting, more resonant, and maybe more honest about a broader range of themes than The Grinder, which settled for simply being very good at being very winky about TV. The Grinder also suffered from a feeling of sameness due to a formulaic narrative structure and refusal to evolve the main attraction, Lowe’s hilariously shallow meta-cliché. Status quo, not transformation, was the order of the franchise. The show was ultimately about a community of people learning to bend toward and serve its unchangeable man-child. I have similar fears about Son of Zorn. I love the idea of watching the fitful maturing of a he-man. But can it really be that show? Isn’t the fun of this series letting Zorn be Zorn, always and forever? But how long before even that loses its charm? Here’s hoping Son of Zorn can remain inspired and never becomes a grind. B+