Matt Groening’s new animated sitcom fails to cast a spell.
Note: this is a spoiler-free review of the first season of Disenchantment, which is available to stream now on Netflix.
The Simpsons may be one of the longest running TV series in history, but it’s also become very stagnant over the decades. It’s hard not to crave something different from Matt Groening and company, especially given how much a breath of fresh air Futurama was during its time on Fox and Comedy Central. Therein lies the appeal of Disenchantment. Not only is it Groening’s third major animated sitcom in his long career, it’s his first project at Netflix. Surely a blank new canvas and the increased creative freedom of streaming is a recipe for success, right?
Created by Groening and featuring Simpsons/Futrama/Gravity Falls veteran Josh Weinstein as showrunner, Disenchantment is a medieval fantasy series set in a realm known as Dreamland. It’s a pretty textbook medieval landscape, spiced up with the occasional fantasy race like elves (more Keebler than Tolkien) and the amphibious humanoids of the neighboring kingdom of Dankmire. Into this realm comes a heroine named Princess Teabeanie (Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson), or “Bean” to everyone but her closest friends and worst enemies. She’s joined by a plucky elf named Elfo (Ben and Kate’s Nat Faxon) and a pint-sized demon trickster named Luci (man Seeking Woman’s Eric Andre).
It would be unfairly reductive to label Disenchantment as a medieval version of Futurama, but it does often feel as though the core trio of Fry, Bender and Leela were basically thrown in a blender and remixed to form Bean, Elfo and Luci. For instance, Bean has inherited Fry’s fish-out-of-water status, Bender’s self-absorbed hedonism and Leela’s perpetual struggle for recognition in a manocentric male-ocracy. Elfo gets Fry’s good-natured naïveté and Leela’s uncertain heritage. And Luci? Well, he’s pretty much just Bender 2.0.
The one thing that does set these new characters apart from the Planet Express crew or the Simpson clan is the vocal talent. Whereas most of the show’s incidental characters are voiced by Groening-verse vets like Billy West, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche and Tress MacNeille, the main trio are handled by newcomers. Jacobson helps keep Bean grounded in reality despite her implausible surroundings, making her feel like a lonely, wayward teenager in search of her destiny. Faxon is dependably amusing as a wide-eyed, unfailingly cheerful elf in a world that’s constantly ready to chew him up and spit him out. Andre brings his own spark to Luci, though the character is rarely given a chance to do more than drop sardonic quips at the expense of others.
One other standout voice actor is worth mentioning. Matt Berry (of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The IT Crowd fame) is downright hilarious as Bean’s blowhard suitor Prince Merkimer. It’s a shame he only appears in a handful of these first ten episodes. Berry’s booming, melodramatic voice is perfectly matched for this fantasy universe. (Luckily, we’ll soon see more of him in FX’s adaptation of What We Do in the Shadows.)
In the end, though, the strong voice work can only do so much to breathe life into a fairly formulaic premise. Disenchantment rarely breaks out of the medieval fantasy mold. Bean struggles with the same challenges so many princesses have before her, including her reluctance to get married and her desire for independence. She’s simply not unique enough to stand out as the driving force of the series. Nor is the first season’s recurring romance subplot particularly compelling (or even convincing).
In general, Disenchantment suffers from a dearth of three-dimensional characters. Apart from Merkimer or Maurice LaMarche’s advisor Odval, there’s rarely an attempt to bring depth or nuance to the supporting cast. They’re mainly there to crack jokes about the miseries of medieval life. And in that arena, the series has little to say we haven’t seen in countless other places (including The Simpsons in its various medieval parodies). I found myself struggling to connect with most of the characters, a fact that really became problematic in the final three episodes. The series makes an abrupt shift into story-driven territory at that point, but it hasn’t done the legwork when it comes to getting viewers emotionally invested in the conflict.
This is a particularly strange flaw given how quickly and easily Futurama was able to veer from goofball antics to tear-jerking moments. “Jurassic Park” or “Luck of the Fryrish” anyone? It’s disappointing that Disenchantment can’t reach similar heights even as it positions itself as the most plot-driven Groening series to date.
Even by the end, Disenchantment never seems to find the right balance between plot and humor it’s striving for. The show’s sense of humor is relatively subdued compared to The Simpsons and Futurama, but the story isn’t strong enough to compensate. It doesn’t help that the episodes tend to run longer than the standard 22 minutes. Rather than making use of that extra length, the jokes and set pieces merely seem stretched out. The show only tends to pick up steam when Bean and friends venture away from their kingdom for extended periods. This suggests that what Disenchantment really needs is to shift away from a static setting and give Bean and her friends a more defined and focused quest to carry out.
On the plus side, the Netflix budget really shows itself when it comes to the animation quality. Like Futurama, the series juxtaposes 2D characters against cel-shaded 3D backgrounds, allowing for all sorts of sweeping camera effects and wide shots. Disenchantment improves on that approach with a much richer color palette and detailed textures. Granted, this does create a weird juxtaposition between the simplistic character designs and the highly detailed environments, but it’s easy enough to adjust after a couple episodes.
One strength Disenchanted shares with The Simpsons is the steady stream of amusing sight gags and sign humor. Where the dialogue and situations sometimes fall flat, barely a shot goes by without some goofy sign or background detail bringing a little extra flavor to this world. From a medieval convenience store called “VII XI” to the fact that Dreamland residents send messages via carrier turkeys, it’s the little things that help redeem Disenchantment. To a certain extent, at least.
The good news is that I see no reason why the series couldn’t roar back with a much stronger batch of ten episodes in Season 2. The events of the finale set the stage for a more interesting new status quo for the series. The trick is finally finding that balance between story and comedy that’s missing right now.