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'Son Of Zorn,' 'The Last Man On Earth' And Ditching Sitcom Normalcy

By the Power of Grayscale: Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) waits for his delicates in FOX's <em>Son of Zorn.</em>
By the Power of Grayscale: Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) waits for his delicates in FOX's Son of Zorn.

Sure, we live in a world of increasingly seamless integration of sophisticated computer animation and live action. And sure, we've seen amazing technical achievements and advances on television. But wouldn't it be funny to just draw a cartoon on top of a sitcom?

That's the conceit behind Fox's Son Of Zorn, which you can basically think of as a family sitcom where the dad is He-Man. Everything in the show is live-action, except that the noncustodial parent of the sweet but sullen teenager is Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), a shirtless cartoon hero who carries a sword and isn't afraid to use it. But that doesn't mean he's not a loving, if bumbling, dad.

That, in fact, is the show's weirdly smart but also just weird idea: in most ways, it's a pretty conventional show about a dad trying to connect with his adolescent son (Johnny Pemberton) in spite of the misgivings of his ex-wife Edie (Cheryl Hines). It's just that this dad happens to be a cartoon character accustomed to pillaging. In the pilot, how exactly Edie managed to conceive a child with a giant cartoon character is not explained. It just is.

In that way, Son Of Zorn resembles the way Fox's comedy The Last Man On Earth began. Starring Will Forte as the titular last man on Earth (who turns out not to be, actually), that show has lasted a couple of seasons spinning out a world that it launched without explaining it all that much. We didn't know details about the virus that killed most of the world or much about the logistics of the death wave that spared Phil (Forte) and some others. But like cartoon Dad, the idea of an isolated Phil is established and then manipulated.

There's something stubbornly grubby about both of these concepts. Zorn, for instance, isn't an elegant animated character, unique and special. He's a relic of what a lot of us recall as the lowbrow, workaday cartoons that used to pack Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. Why a knockoff of He-Man? Well, why not? A huge shirtless dude trying to get a job interview is funny. A bumbling warrior giving his kid a fantasy creature as a gift and delivering it in the driveway of a suburban house is funny. Is it brilliant? Naw. But this is what television is now; it's more specific attempts to throw a lot of things at the wall and hope the the very oddity of them sticks for just enough people.

Son Of Zorn was created by Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne, but it counts among its executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have credits from Clone High and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs to The Lego Movie and, in fact, The Last Man On Earth, which they cooked up with Will Forte. Lord and Miller are world-builders at heart, and they usually have a central concept from which everything else follows: a Lego world, a world with weather made of food, a world with one bearded dude left in it, a world where cartoons mate with humans.

It used to be that a lot of TV comedy presented a supposed normalcy that, of course, wasn't normal. On some shows, everyone was supposed to be perfecty average, perfectly regular, perfectly unobjectionable. That's how we got The Brady Bunch and lots of other stories that wrapped up in a half-hour without bothering anybody. It's not that there were no strange ideas, like Gilligan's Island and My Favorite Martian and so forth. (And Mr. Ed and My Mother The Car and ... come to think of it, there used to be some really weird sitcoms.) But for the last couple of decades, broadcast comedies in particular have thrived on wisecracking families and workplaces and friends who function as families, and not so much on broadly goofy high concepts.

Son Of Zorn and The Last Man On Earth — and Lord and Miller's stuff in general, and Will Forte's — are about weirdness and silliness. They're about doing everything at an angle. Normal, after all, is overrated.

The Last Man on Earth returns to FOX on Sunday, Sept. 25th at 8:00 pm ET. Son of Zorn premieres immediately afterward.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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