Post-Modern He-Man: Son of Zorn

Premiering tonight on Fox is Son of Zorn, a thoroughly silly semi-animated sitcom starring Jason Sudeikis, Cheryl Hines, and Tim Meadows, with Johnny Pemberton as the titular Son. There’s a preview episode available online, with thirteen total episodes to come this fall.

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Son of Zorn has a high-concept premise to be sure: Zorn (voiced by Sudeikis), a clear homage to the 1980s animated version of He-Man, returns from the land of Zephyria to get involved in the life of his son, Alangulon—or “Alan” to his friends. Because Zorn’s baby momma isn’t She-Ra or any other sort of Amazonian heroine: she’s Edie (Hines), a perfectly mundane woman living an ordinary life with her new fiancé, psychology professor Craig (Meadows).

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The show is basically a mash-up: a dysfunctional family sitcom, with Dad in conflict with Mom and Mom’s new boyfriend because of their kid, combined with a sort of high-fantasy pastiche.

Both genres are pushed to ridiculous limits: Zephyria is apparently a nonstop bloodbath, enough to make George R.R. Martin vomit. We spend only a few minutes there, but we’re never far removed from a decapitation, dismemberment, disemboweling, or other atrocity. Zorn’s costume is mostly Conan the Barbarian, outfitted with a giant golden sword, a fur loincloth, dagger-gauntlets, and the rest. The comic benefit is in the utter acceptance of this part of Zorn’s life: he nods through reports from the front as though he’s going over box scores, while the audience gapes at the gore and violence.

On the other hand, we’ve got a fish-out-of-water story as a middle-aged male protagonist tries to come around to succeed in domestic life. This is a beloved sitcom trope, from Kirk van Houten on The Simpsons, to the bachelors of Full House, to Horsin’ Around, the fictional sitcom from Son of Zorn‘s spiritual forefather, BoJack Horseman.

It’s just that instead of the rock ‘n roll life of Uncle Jesse, Zorn comes from the battlefields of Zephyria. His domestic challenges are far, far sillier.

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He may have adapted to the business casual workplace with a polo shirt and tie over his loincloth, but of course, he’s still unaware that you can’t just shatter the conference table with your broadsword after a meeting. He wants to be a cool dad, but it’s not getting Alan a car for his 16th birthday, it’s getting him a dread riding eagle.

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This pushes Edie’s role into absurdity as well: she’s not the joyless mom of sitcom tradition who refuses to let her kid have a good time, she’s an altogether understandable human person who doesn’t want her teenage son killed performing what Zorn calls “murderswoops.”

Likewise, the generation gap comedy between an ultra-masculine dad and his more modern son is amped up to absurd levels when the two try to bond at a dinner out. While Zorn is horrified to find out that Alan is a vegetarian, his shock is well exceeded by Alan’s reaction when Zorn, asked how he wants his steak cooked, responds with “Not. Not cooked, thank you.”

The jokes land very well in the first episode, and the ultimate success of the show will depend on whether or not the show can continue to walk its line of parodying sitcom and fantasy tropes without simply repeating them.

There are some causes for concern: Zorn’s life in Zephyria feels like a parody of something which hasn’t existed for thirty years. After all, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuted in 1983, and it already did a mashup with the real world in a 1987 flop, where Skeletor is only defeated with the help of some California teens.

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Yes, that is Courtney Cox, thanks for noticing.

The homage to 1980’s animation is sure to be well-received by Gen-Xers–like the show’s creators—but it’s behind if the attempt is to parody fantasy fiction in any kind of relevant way. Zephyria is Eternia, not Westeros. There’s some thematic resonance there, since Zorn himself is distinctly moving into a new phase of his life, but it loses some of its potential.

The sitcom parody is more promising, since the sitcom dad tropes are virtually unchanged in thirty years—a point which may be driven home by the fact that Zorn shares a lineup with the 28th season of The Simpsons. The tendency in those shows has been to sympathize with the ultra-masculinity of the protagonist, as in any of Tim Allen’s oeuvre. But Zorn seems to be establishing itself on the other side, firmly identifying the audience with Alan rather than Zorn. Vegetarianism is set up, very literally, against barbarism, not simply manliness: Zorn embarrasses his son in front of the cute waitress, and gets them kicked out of the restaurant, still pleading for raw meat and brandishing his weaponry. Nobody is impressed, nobody thinks it’s cool, and we cringe at the father, rather than the son.

And Zorn’s workplace and domestic struggles show him as out of touch, rather than simply too cool for school. He can’t bluster through a job in sales with ancient weapons and gilded goblets, he’s just barely tolerated by his boss and coworkers and he frustrates rather than impresses. He’s never going to win back Edie from the psychology prof.

A talented cast and creative team give a lot of hope for its future, but a unique show like Son of Zorn is always going to be a risky proposition. It makes just enough strides in the right direction to indicate a promising future, but the final answer remains to be seen.

Son of Zorn airs on Sundays at 8:30 on Fox.


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