Netflix’s new animated series Disenchantment is a comedy which didn’t make me laugh a single time throughout its entire 10 episodes. I smirked a handful of times, sure, but never outright laughed. Yet once the season was over I actually wanted to spend more time in the show’s universe. This is partially due to familiarity and partially because the season goes out on a high note.
On the familiarity part: the age of peak TV means being constantly overwhelmed with choices. As such, it’s comforting to sometimes simply get lost in something technically new, but refreshingly old.
That certainly fits Disenchantment perfectly. It’s Matt Groening’s first new series since Futurama launched 20 years ago, and it is shockingly easy to simply think of it as Pastarama or, if that sounds too confusing, Medievalrama. It looks, feels, and sounds almost exactly like Futurama, putting it far more in that show’s debt than Groening’s more famous creation, The Simpsons.
The animation from longtime collaborators at Rough Draft studios is basically a mix of Futurama with the rougher edges of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip. The comedy is very much in the same broadly satirical and parodic voice of Futurama, just applied to the past instead of the future. Whereas, for example, the Futurama writers were clearly inspired by schlocky B movies, the Twilight Zone, and pretty much the entire gamut of the sci-fi genre, Disenchantment draws its inspiration from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones, Disney princess stories, and just about anything else that ever mixed the medieval with the fantastical.
The premise: a princess, an elf, and a demon share misadventures in a crumbling magical kingdom named Dreamland while trying to find their purpose.
The trailer gives the show a slight Tangled feel, with the princess leaving home for the first time and exploring the outside world with new friends. However, the forced marriage plot is resolved by the start of the third episode and she returns home. Thereafter, the base setting – meaning the place where all the stories start – remains the castle in Dreamland.
The princess, nicknamed Bean (and voiced by Abbi Jacobson), is a drunken layabout rebelling against both the backwards gender politics of her time and her uncultured, emotionally distant father (voiced by John DiMaggio, aka, Bender) and his cadre of quirky subordinates (voiced by LaMarche, MacNeille, West and Herman). The elf, with the rather on-the-nose name Elfo (voiced by Nat Faxon), has stumbled into their lives after leaving his magical homeland and its constantly cheery, constantly sinking residents in search of a place where people aren’t so damn happy all the time. And the demon named Luci (voiced by Eric Andre) is…well, he’s just a demon, forced onto Bean in the pilot when she prematurely opens a mysterious wedding gift. Most everyone mistakes him for a cat, for some reason. As a character, he’s decidedly one-note, as in love with perpetuating evil as Bender was with drinking.
The show is more about Bean that it is about Elfo or Luci, who often act as the feuding angel and devil on her shoulder attempting to appeal to her best or worst impulses. Usually, for the sake of comedy, Luci wins that battle and Bean’s latest effort at self-improvement ends in a drunken stupor and a deeply disappointed dad yelling at her. As Groening told THR, Bean is his favorite character on the show for just how thoroughly “not a perfect princess” she is: “There are more consequences to her actions. And Abbi brings a feminist’s point of view to the words.”
There is a running subplot about Elfo being in love with Bean, which has shades of Fry and Leela but feels far more unnecessary here. There is also a season-long mystery as to who exactly sent Luci to Bean in the first place, which, spoiler, is never actually answered, instead left as a cliffhanger.
The problem in all of this is not the set-up but the execution. This is a perfectly fine premise for a series, but it all feels rather tired. As IndieWire summed up: “The jokes are stale, their set-ups are mundane, the plot is predictable, the execution is rarely inspired.”
Also, in dealing with a magical re-imagining of medieval times and fairy tales the series spins its wheels a bit in terms of deciding what to use as reference points (a Hansel and Gretel parody here, an exorcism plot there). Far too often, we end up with tired sitcom plots like Elfo convincing a one-eyed giant to pretend to be his girlfriend to avoid talking to Bean about his feelings, or Bean throwing a party at the castle while her dad is away only to then end up having to hide the evidence before he gets back, which in this case means all the dead bodies since Vikings showed up and temporarily tried to take over the kingdom.
As per the inaugural seasons of both The Simpsons and Futurama, it feels like Groening and team are still working out all of the kinks and wrestling with what they want this thing to be. However, unlike those older shows, you don’t have to wait until next season to see Groening turn the corner. With Disenchantment, that starts to happen with the eighth episode when the show finally gives in to its serialized tendencies and basically tells a mini-movie dropping one bombshell after another about both Bean and Elfo’s respective pasts while finally giving Luci something other than the same ole “I’m evil, I love evil” note to play.
Groening told THR, “The Simpsons is a family sitcom, Futurama was a workplace comedy and Disenchantment is a show about three damaged people in a magical world trying to figure out who they are and where they are going. The show takes some dark turns and there is some tragedy.”
Once those turns finally arrive in the final three episodes what has been a pleasant, but uninspired series turns into something with actual vitality and a clearer sense of purpose. Netflix is advertising this not as “Season 1” but instead “Part 1,” and that’s because Groening was given a 20-episode order. They’ve simply cut it in half. The second part of the story promises bigger and better things.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Good eyes, ScreenRant. As they pointed out, there is an easter egg in the season finale which seems to confirm Disenchantment is indeed set in the Futurama universe, albeit most likely thousands of years before Fry, Bender, and Leela’s time. It’s also possible it’s actually set at the same time as Futurama and Dreamland is just a more elaborate version of the medieval civilization seen in Bender’s Big Score, but there’s no real evidence suggesting that. But, go crazy, fan theories.
What about you? What’s been your impression of Disenchantment so far? Let me know in the comments.