Lately, Netflix hasn’t had the best of luck when it comes to keeping the quality of their original programing consistent. Yes, I’m as excited as the rest of you for the October 27 mass release of “Stranger Things’” second season, and yes, I’m impressed by the streaming platform’s (now network’s?) voracity in releasing such a varied array of programing, particularly when, in the shadow of “Stranger Things” and “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix masthead has become synonymous with good writing and high production value.
Unfortunately, many of the service’s latest releases have missed the mark. The reason for which, I believe, is couched deep within Netflix itself, deep within its own raison d’etre. First, let’s consider what Netflix has become: a production powerhouse focused on branding the living hell out of what it puts forward as “original programming.” For the most part, “original” here means “something not released by another distributor.” Therein lies the rub, because Netflix is for the masses. As much as its line-up of original programming might speak to you on an individual level, Netflix isn’t making these shows just for you (or even just for a small community of dedicated watchers). Netflix throws barrels of cash at productions that will do one of two things: win awards, or appeal to the masses.
Sometimes, as with “Stranger Things,” these two focal areas meet, and a well-written, engaging TV show is born. Notice that most of the time, however, Netflix appropriates an idea or story not endemic to their catalogue. A writer or producer walks up to them and pitches a complete vision, which Netflix then rejects or embraces. This “build it and they will come” attitude serves to explain the prevalence of original documentary features on Netflix: there’s always someone ready to capture a story taking place.
It’s the stories that aren’t already taking place — stories that need to be conceived of and written — that pose the most pressing problem.
“Son of Zorn,” one of Netflix’s newest additions to its catalogue of animated programs geared towards more adult audiences, is a beautiful exercise in sleight of hand. Ostensibly about Zorn, (a “He-Man” rip-off) and his relationship with an estranged teenage son, the show is devised in such a way so as to trick viewers into thinking there’s a plot behind the interactions of moving, talking, shapes on the screen.
This criticism is biting, yes, but hardly unwarranted.
Narratively, “Son of Zorn” purports to be genre-specific (the ultra-machismo of the main character calls to mind cartoons of decades past like “GI Joe” and “He-Man”), but the show attempts to deal with parenthood in exactly the same way that “Arrested Development” did with Michael Bluth and his son George Michael — a well-meaning but oblivious father constantly embarrasses his son (in the case of Zorn, by refusing to relate to his son through anything other than monster-slaying and barbarism: a tactic that’s ineffective in the same way that screaming English at residents when visiting a foreign country in an attempt to be better understood is ineffective). More damningly, it’s characteristic of lazy writing.
Dressing cookie-cutter stories up to suit a specific genre isn’t a new trick (in fact, it’s been used to sell the rom-com genre to audiences for decades), but “Son of Zorn’s” transgression comes down with twice the force of any rom-com, because it knows it’s a fraud. There’s no adventure or real drama in “SoZ’s” plot, only the illusion of drama, presented to us with the subtlety of a cartoon barbarian trashing his office at a temp agency, and later denying his involvement in the slicing of the fax machine, sheepishly trying to draw attention away from the four-foot-long broadsword propped up against the wall when confronted by his boss. A sword, by the way, which is just as superficial and cartoonish as every action of Zorn’s in his quest to gain his son’s acceptance. (An acceptance which is invariably granted to him in later episodes out of convenience, if nothing else.)
Any attempt at self-reflexivity afforded by the titular character’s cartoon body appearing in the real world is acknowledged and promptly thrown out the proverbial window, along with any plans of displaying even a single character on the show as multidimensional. Instead, “Son of Zorn” opts for signification in lieu of actual dramatic engagement. The viewer is painfully aware of Alan’s (Zorn’s son) awkwardness, Zorn’s brash short-sightedness, an ON/OFF switch between endlessly rolling eyes or a sharp judgemental gaze which serve as the only indicators of Linda’s (Zorn’s ex) current mood, or the hemming and hawing of Craig (Linda’s boyfriend, and an online psychology lecturer), who, for no apparent reason other than a scriptwriter’s compulsion to capitalize on the rising trend of anti-intellectualism in Western society, gleefully comments on his emasculation at the hands of Zorn with an air of superiority that only adds to the caricature.
Realizing it squandered some 10 episodes drilling these qualities into the viewer’s perception of its characters, “Son of Zorn” picks up and delivers in four episodes a plot marred by twists and plot-points which, try as they might, fail at reassuring us that we haven’t just been conned out of hours better spent trying to pair up that pile of mismatched socks in the laundry room.
I don’t know man, just don’t watch this thing.