When you made the greatest American comedy of all time, the only way is down. At least, that was the hype surrounding Futurama in 1999 when it was revealed that Matt Groening would be making a new show following The Simpsons. Eventually, that series built up to become another modern comedy classic, albeit in a more culty manner than its legendary yellow sibling.
Now, it’s 2018. Peak T.V. is in full force and animated comedy has gone in daring new directions: BoJack Horseman is a bleak satire of Hollywood excess and a potent dissection of depression, all dressed up in the twisted childishness of anthropomorphized animals; Rick and Morty is a sci-fi parody that takes the genre’s conventions to their most nihilistic logical conclusion and tears down the fetishizing of nostalgia and cold hard intellect so many of their own fans blindly embrace; Bob’s Burgers is a working class American comedy for the empathetic age; Big Mouth is a disgustingly honest look at puberty in a highly literal form; even the kids’ stuff, like Steven Universe and Adventure Time has found new shades in the technicolour giddiness. It takes a lot to stand out from the crowd and audiences have less patience for shows that don’t immediately hit their stride. Why wait a whole season, with week after week of tuning in, to see if a show improves after a rocky start when you can mainline through 12 episodes in one day?
In that aspect, Matt Groening’s latest show, Disenchantment, still feels like a creature from an earlier age. While it’s a Netflix show, with ten episodes available now, it seems like something pitched for network in terms of structure. Groening is the old warhorse of animated comedy now: Futurama eventually ended after a couple of revivals that offered diminishing returns and The Simpsons endures more as a punchline than anything else (although I maintain many of its more recent seasons are stronger than they’ve been given credit for). It also doesn’t help that Groening, whose political comics remain as sharp as ever, has been so wilfully ignorant in his responses to criticism of Apu. I don’t blame people who may have read Groening’s words and the mixed responses to Disenchantment and decided to skip the series.
Still, I also can’t deny how, as the episodes went on, I found myself growing to seriously love Disenchantment. Is it uneven? Sure, but so was season one of Futurama, and The Simpsons for that matter. Is it revolutionary? No, and it does feel like a beast of a different time when compared to its Netflix cousins. But dang if I didn’t laugh a whole lot while watching it.
Disenchantment is a fairy-tale inspired fantasy comedy about Princess Tiabeanie of Dreamland, or Bean, voiced by Abbi Jacobson of Broad City. Like all cartoon princesses, she doesn’t want to be smothered by the expectations of her royal family, nor does she want to be forced into a marriage of political convenience. She wants more, and by more, she means the freedom to get drunk whenever she wants. Aiding her in her descent into messiness is her personal demon Luci (Eric Andre), while the first elf to visit Dreamland in an age, creatively named Elfo (Nat Faxon), tries to steer her towards good and possibly love.
The Disney pastiche is obvious but Disenchantment smartly avoids the more blatant pop culture parodies and references. Once again, when your forefather is The Simpsons, our generation’s greatest insight into pop culture, you can wisely step over such concerns. Instead, the series goes to work establishing its own universe, familiar to fantasy fans but with its own defined rules that work separately from the expected tropes. Dreamland isn’t especially dreamlike and its shaky alliances with other nations barely keep it afloat, thanks to incompetent leaders and booze. Bean wants more from life but she has no idea what more really is or how easy it is to want when your life is as cushy as hers. This is a world where people quickly succumb to their most base desires and give little empathy for what they leave behind. That makes it sound bleaker than it is, but one of the strengths of Disenchantment is in how it depicts total fuck-ups as sympathetic but still culpable for their actions.
Bean is a glorious fuck-up. It makes sense that she’s voiced by one half of Broad City, and Jacobson nails that balance of warmth and bratty teen petulance. This princess is ill-equipped for her own world as well as that of the lowly commoner. She’s been created as a back-up option to the true male heir and her worth is rooted in how she can service men, be it her husband or her father, King Zog. She drinks and gets high and kills people at a remarkable rate, partly because the demon enables her but mostly because it’s all she feels she’s good at. Bean is self-destructive and regrets her messes every single time, but it doesn’t stop her. The simple subversion of the cartoon princess trope works wonders here, and seeing a buck-toothed tomboy who knocks back beer like it’s going out of style and derides all the men around her is immensely satisfying.
Overall, the characterization is consistent throughout for the large ensemble: Luci is an agent of chaos, so casually evil but with growing affection for his cohorts; Zog is a bad king who lacks the emotional capacity to deal with the daughter he loves but has never said so; Odval, the Prime Minister of Dreamland, is calculating but has no respect for his king and would prefer to engage in good old-fashioned sex magic with his wizard boyfriend; even Prince Merkimer, voiced by the ever wonderful Matt Berry, is essentially Medieval Zapp Brannigan (and it is hysterical).
The only blind spot here is Elfo. I get the feeling that the show wanted him to be the Fry of this world, a sweetheart dolt who is completely out of place in his new land, but he veers too quickly into Nice Guy territory. His crush on Bean can be cute but often feels archaic, although the show is also smart enough to straight-up acknowledge how possessive his behaviour gets. The writing can’t decide if he’s supposed to be endlessly sweet or the little bastard of the elf world, and the balance never quite works. He does improve by the season’s end, but Elfo could use a little more work in the writers’ room.
The strength of the show is its humour. I laughed out loud consistently with every episode. There’s one gag featuring mermaids that had me slide onto the floor in near hysteria. Where the show gets intriguing is in its embrace of a more serialized format. There is a running plotline throughout the season - Zog’s hunt for the elixir of life through use of Elfo’s blood - that pays off in an unexpectedly smart and poignant way. Groening’s work tends to eschew such limitations. The fishbowl memory of The Simpsons, and to a lesser extent Futurama, allowed the writers to go wild. Here, they have to commit to plot and character alike. It works, partly because it promises such immense potential for a second season but also because they put the work in to make the climax effective. Moments like the thawing of Bean and Zog’s mutually antagonistic father-daughter relationship pack a quiet punch amid the gags.
I’m excited to see where Disenchantment goes, and on my second watch of the season, the jokes still landed for me and I found time to appreciate the sheer beauty of the animation. Groening’s oft-imitated style has never looked better. The music, by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, is also a thing of wonder, blending Eastern European folk with a fantasy tinge. It’s not a Matt Groening show without a theme song that gets stuck in your head for days. Disenchantment has teething problems, but in an age of instant pop culture gratification, it deserves your patience.
Header Image Source: Netflix