The muscled hero of Fox’s new sitcom Son of Zorn is a knock-off version of He-Man: a bare-chested, sword-wielding animated hero with flowing red locks and a penchant for violence. He’s also a fish out of water, living in the (extremely un-animated) suburbs and working an office job to be closer to his estranged son. Meanwhile, his retrograde view of the world seems mired in the previous century. Midway through the pilot episode, Zorn describes his new job with a sense of wonder. “My boss looks and talks exactly like a woman … he wears skirts, he’s carrying a purse, he uses tampons,” he marvels. “Honestly, if he wasn’t above me in the chain of command, I’d swear he was a woman.”
Sitcoms have always relied on the meathead for easy laughs—the handsome, lunkheaded, skirt-chasing fool who remains unflappably self-confident no matter how often he’s the butt of jokes. But as times have changed, it’s been harder to poke fun at toxic masculinity while keeping the audience on the character’s side. For Zorn’s backward nonsense to fit into the modern world in 2016, he has to be a literal cartoon, a sword-wielding troglodyte whose behavior is excusable because he’s basically from another planet.
Son of Zorn, which debuted Sunday night, jibes interestingly with the rest of Fox’s Sunday animation block, which has been dominated for the last decade by Seth MacFarlane’s particular brand of humor (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show). Though he has his self-referential moments, MacFarlane is still the man who sang “We Saw Your Boobs” at the Oscars; Zorn, it seems, operates at about the same level of wit. The pilot episode takes the same tack as the recent 21 Jump Street reboot (both were shepherded to the screen by the directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller) by satirizing a world that’s leaped forward while its protagonist has stood hopelessly still.
In 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum’s character was a high school meathead who always got the girl; but when he went back to school years later as an undercover cop, he was shocked by a world where “nerds” were more venerated than jocks and his cockiness was plainly written off as sexism. In Son of Zorn, the hero flies from his cartoon fantasy-land to Orange County, California, because he wants to be closer to his heroic son Alangulon (Johnny Pemberton). Expecting a buff hero, he’s horrified to find that he goes by Alan and is a staunch vegetarian (whereas when Zorn is asked how he’d like his steak cooked, he answers, “Not”). Son of Zorn does well to avoid the argument that something has been lost in this new, progressive world—Zorn is very much a buffoon from start to finish—but the gag has nonetheless started to wear thin by the end of the first episode’s 22 minutes.
The closest analogue to success for Zorn might be FX’s animated hero Archer, another toxic bro who leads his show as both a hero to root for and an idiot to deride. Like the super-spy Sterling Archer (played by H. John Benjamin), Zorn is voiced by a comedic actor (Jason Sudeikis) who knows how to shift from a heroic, booming voice to beleaguered sarcasm without undercutting the character. But unlike Archer (a fully animated show), Zorn has to interact with real people, including his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines), through simple CGI trickery. It lends an unfortunate flatness to most of the jokes—when the characters lecture Zorn about his latest bit of cartoon tomfoolery (at one point, his office’s conference table is cleft in twain), it doesn’t feel like they’re acting against anything except a tennis ball to fix their eyes toward.
The meathead (in all his varieties) isn’t going anywhere, but he is evolving—How I Met Your Mother’s Barney and New Girl’s Schmidt both settled down into serious relationships in their sitcom runs, The Big Bang Theory’s Howard is happily married, and even Archer has become a father trying to take more responsibility for his child. Son of Zorn is instead moving in a weirder direction, hoping the absurdity of its premise is enough to wring jokes from every week. Its hero is a fish out of water not only because he’s a cartoon but because he’s drawn straight out of the early ‘80s. The more the show pushes at the darker aspects of that conflict, rather than make goofy jokes about vegetarianism, the funnier it’ll be.
In an attempt to win his son over, Zorn presents him with an oversized cartoon falcon to ride to school; when Edie objects, he jabs his sword through its neck with hilarious carelessness, then starts hacking it to pieces so he can put it out with the rest of the garbage. That’s toxic masculinity for you: Grim and hard to clean up, but still an easy punchline.
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