Son of Zorn Premiere Review: Return to Orange County

FOX’s live-action/animated hybrid Son of Zorn shows much promise but is fairly traditional under all of the magic.

It still blows my mind a little bit when I think about how FOX has become the best basic network in terms of innovative comedies currently on television. I mean, what happened NBC (okay, The Good Place might end up being all right)? Son of Zorn is a traditional family and workplace sitcom that skewers that idea on a jewel-encrusted soul sword since the patriarch of the family is an animated cartoon character. Such an absurd, ambitious project feels absolutely within FOX’s wheelhouse at this point, especially since other groundbreaking shows on the network like Last Man on Earth continue to thrive. Last Man’s success might actually have something to do with Zorn, as Phil Lord and Chris Miller act as executive producers on this effort, too.

The trajectory of “Return to Orange County” largely sees Zorn reintegrating himself back into his son’s life, which means packing his animated bags and hitting the real-world bricks of California. Zorn’s adjustment process is predictably shaky with this first episode taking a lot of the turns that you might expect from something like this. I was surprised at how conventional all of this was. I mean yes, there are giant hawk dismemberments and a team of warriors on Zephyria consisting of fighters amongst the likes of Headbutt Man and Skunk Man (R.I.P.), but this is your basic divorced dad narrative.

The first shots that we see of Zorn in Orange County, awkwardly trying to blend in during everyday settings, like taking the bus or dealing with baggage claim, are a bit of a struggle. They just fall flat and don’t give the right impression of the show’s handle on the technology that it’s playing with. Not everything is as detached as those opening scenes. Obviously I’m not as frame-one in love with the show as I was with Last Man on Earth, but it’s still one of the more unique comedies to come along in a while. It hopefully will evolve into a welcome new slant on the family sitcom.

While I found the first half of the pilot to be lacking, thankfully things seem to settle in and become more confident by the second half. Also, as I just stated, this is a pilot. They are usually problematic and merely a glimpse of what the show’s actual voice will be. We’ve been spoiled lately with pilot homeruns for series like Last Man On Earth or Baskets. Son of Zorn’s premiere perfectly establishes what the show is trying to do, but hopefully future installments will get a little more creative with the “culture shock” between California and Zephyria.

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It’s worth mentioning that while Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne (Wilfred) are the creators of this show and the writers of the pilot, after the premiere moved forward as a series they eventually stepped down with Sally Bradford McKenna and Eric Appel stepping in to become the new, co-showrunners. I like McKenna’s work a lot, who has previously done impressive things on comedies like Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23 and The Grinder. Accordingly, the following episodes might end up being a much better indication of the sort of stories that this show will be turning out.

It’s also kind of refreshing to see the pilot zip through Zorn acquiring the fundamentals of his new life as he obtains an apartment in town and lands a job. These are certainly elements that could have been dragged out across several episodes so it’s great to just see Zorn flinging jeweled severed hands as payment to solve his problems left and right. Through these actions he might be able to prove to Alan that he cares about fostering a relationship before it’s too late, but you know what they say, you can take a nine-anused Zephyrian ice bat to water, but you can’t make it drink.

I found myself a little surprised that Zorn ended up being my least favorite character coming out of this first episode. This entire cast is full of people that I enjoy watching, but the rest of Zorn’s family really knock it out of the park here. Johnny Pemberton is perfectly cast as Alangulon (or y’know, Alan, to his friends) Zorn’s teenaged son and Cheryl Hines comfortably slides into the frustrated wife role that she can do with aplomb.

But it was Tim Meadows performance and character as Craig, Edie’s new fiancé that might have been my favorite part of this episode. He’s such a big ball of self pity dressed up as optimism. Every moment from Meadows made me laugh, especially his speech about how he’s a disappointment to his family. He’s such a pragmatic oddball in a way that keeps him from a distance from everyone else in a way totally different from Zorn. He’s the sort of character where being a professor for an online college and delivering Skype lectures is the perfect job for him as it opens him up to such self-inflicted emasculation. He’s who I’m particularly looking forward to getting storylines about, or when we get the first full-on Zorn/Craig episode.

Zorn, the character, very much feels like elements of Stan Smith and Space Ghost getting thrown into the He-Man mold. That’s a great basic model to work from, but at least in the pilot he’s largely in “fish out of water” mode. This holds diminishing returns because frankly it’s been done a lot at this point, and it’s just not that original (this first episode reminded me a lot of the dynamic in Golan, the Insatiable, an animated comedy FOX never really gave a fair shot). That’s the most disappointing thing about Zorn’s pilot in the end. That it’s such a flashy show that looks so exciting and new, yet it’s covering some of the most traditional, overdone areas in television. This looks different, but it’s not. At least not yet.

That being said, Zorn, both the character and the show hint at leagues of potential. Once he gets past the basic hang-ups of the premise and the situation he’s found himself in, I can’t wait for the rest of this character to get peeled back.

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Let’s remember though that the show’s title is not Zorn, but rather Son of Zorn. If Alan is truly going to be the focus here, the series is in good hands. Pemberton brings such a humble earnestness to the character. He wants things with his dad to go well, even if he fully expects the opposite. The first episode also manages to wedge in a love interest for Alan who looks to be just as twitchy as he is. I found myself surprisingly into their vibe and wanting to see more of them together right away. Alan’s someone you want to root for. Hopefully we’ll get plenty of time to do so.

The final beat of the pilot is a strong, weird joke for the show to go out on that hints at a few more layers of this weird universe. If this is what is being said in just the first episode then the show’s only going to get crazier as it goes on. Despite some early, yet excusable bumps along the way, Son of Zorn is still something that’s worth checking out and a series that will only improve.

I’d bet my brain gouger on it.


3.5 out of 5