“Son of Zorn” ’s pilot isn’t particularly good. It’s not excruciatingly terrible, nor is it some sort of fascinating mess; there’s little to marvel at in its pedestrian badness. It’s simply an uninspiring, mediocre, even boring half-hour of television.
This is somewhat surprising, given the conceit. “Son of Zorn” is a hybrid, live-action/animated comedy (think “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) starring SNL alum Jason Sudeikis (“Sleeping With Other People”), Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Tim Meadows (“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”). Zorn (Sudeikis) is an animated warrior from the island of Zephyria (interestingly, this isn’t based on an existing property), who decides to move back to Los Angeles to rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife, Edie (Hines) and teenage son, Alangulon (Johnny Pemberton, “Neighbors 2”).
That central premise should sound dispiritingly familiar to anyone who’s watched enough television. “Zorn” is a collection of tropes — the deadbeat dad trying to better himself, the fish-out-of-water, the white male antihero, etc. — that thinks it’s a novel spin on the genre simply because of its visual presentation. And while the animation is deployed skillfully and creatively (the show gets away with a nice, winking gag involving a giant bird and a sword), the jokes only land sporadically.
Furthermore, Zorn looks to be the only fully-formed character worth investing in. Sudeikis’s voice acting is impressive, even bringing to mind Will Arnett’s stellar work as a similarly bullish character on “BoJack Horseman,” but Zorn’s development almost certainly promises to be the same redemptive arc we’ve seen in every TV show with an absent father. Meadows scores a few good laughs at the expense of psychologists and online professors everywhere, but Hines’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” comedic brilliance is frustratingly underused as a stock ex-wife.
What’s most frustrating, however, is the general lack of interest in exploring more captivating material. Simply transplanting an animated character into the most well worn of narrative set-ups does not a successful story make. “Son of Zorn” seems content to mine the inherent absurdity of its premise only in the most surface-level ways, rather than fully embracing its narrative and comedic potential. The network sitcom is a dying breed in the era of seemingly unlimited content, and Fox has managed to produce a number of the best comedies currently on air, but “Zorn” refuses to engage with the substance that makes it stand out.
Still, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“22 Jump Street”) are executive producers, and a few tantalizing gags offer their uniquely hilarious, whacky and meta sensibility that has already led to sitcom gold for Fox (“The Last Man On Earth”). An intriguing tag at the end of the pilot, too, promises a more compelling storyline going forward. But rare glimpses of a more absurd and surreal show lying restless underneath the stifling pilot can’t justify the intermittently funny slog that we’re forced to endure in the show’s establishing half-hour.
Reported turmoil behind the camera might help explain an unexceptional pilot that features Jason Sudeikis and Cheryl Hines: series creators Reed Agnew and Eli Jorné (“Wilfred”) eventually left the project midway through production due to creative differences, and Sally McKenna (“Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe”) was brought on as the sole showrunner. The somewhat awkward mix of standard sitcom punchlines and more visual, understated humor hints at some of the tonal inconsistency. Perhaps the show the original creators wanted to make might have been more creatively ambitious and inspired; the version we’ve got, unfortunately, is not.