Netflix’s ‘Disenchantment’ is No ‘Simpsons’ or “Futurama’
Disenchantment, for real, is an animated show on TV that exists. It’s right there on Netflix, under Originals, next to The Great British Baking Show and The Politician. Netflix released 10 half-hour episodes in August of 2018, and a new set of shows, bring it to total of 20, with Parts 3 and 4 already in development.
Having seen all 20 episodes so far, though, I still have a hard time believing Disenchantment is a real thing that I watched on television, rather than an idea I heard about and considered watching. Ten full hours of the show have come and gone and it’s hard to even remember much of it at all.
If it were as socially attuned and sharp as the early seasons of The Simpsons, as smart and weird as the original run of Futurama, or even as pointed and searching as Groening’s old Life in Hell comic strips, Disenchanted could be remarkable. It arrives just as the Game of Thrones TV juggernaut is paused until its offspring of prequels and TV side hustles arrive. The time’s ripe for a great satire of sword & sorcery silliness, a winking comedy that speaks to our own times and draws parallels between the barbarism of medieval times (the era) and our current dark timeline. It should at least amuse and entertain, bringing new life to an overfamiliar genre and providing a satisfying overstuffed meal, not unlike what you’d get at Medieval Times (the restaurant).
Disenchantment, instead, is a turducken minus the duck and chicken, weirdly emptied out and limp. The first season established the kingdom of Dreamland, and the main character, an oft-drunk Princess Tiabeanie played by Abbi Jacobson (sounding like a less-stoned version of her Broad City persona). I hoped that it would give way to a more plot-driven quest show, but Part 2’s collection of episodes dashes that. The show stabs interestingly toward new realms like a seaside village called Maru, Hell, and an advanced steampunk city for one-off episodes, but return inevitably to dreary Dreamland and its corpulent King Zøg, played by Futurama’s John DiMaggio like a Borscht Belt Bender.
It features an overarching mystery about Princess Bean’s mother, who turned out not to be dead by the end of Part 1, and why there are outside factions plotting King Zøg’s death. But the show clearly meant for those plot points to close out and open up half-seasons of the show, not serve at the main meat of the series. Disenchantment sorts out a cliffhanger at the end of Part 1 that turns the entire population on Dreamland to stone by the second episode of Part 2, and then it’s a bunch of unrelated episodes until the season starts to wind down again.
The show’s marketing keeps alluding to quests and big, epic stories, but that’s typically not what an episode is about. Instead, village elves might engage in a heist to steal money from the king, or Bean might decide she wants to write a play about her life, or the King might fall in love with a woman who is part-lady, part grizzly bear. They’re fun ideas, but they don’t last, and the overall plotting doesn’t exactly rise to the level of George R. R. Martin.
Dis Ain’t Funny
This would all be no big deal if Disenchantment didn’t have two much larger problems: its three main characters don’t work, and it simply doesn’t have enough good jokes.
Early in Part 1, a lovelorn green elf named Elfo joins Bean. All of the show’s elves have on-the-nose names such as Shocko, who finds everything shocking, and Leavo, who abandons the village. As his name suggests, Elfo’s defining trait is that he’s an elf. Out in the world, in Part 1, his naivete at the ways of the world drove his personality, but in Part 2, after dying and being revived, he becomes a bitter, insufferable little asshole. It doesn’t make the show any funnier.
Eric Andre plays a tiny demon named Luci, one of those cuddly “Evil” characters who always ends up doing the right thing despite being a creature from Hell. Here was an opportunity to let loose some of Eric Andre’s wild talent, the kind of insanity he brings to Adult Swim’s Eric Andre Show, but disappointingly, Luci is just a sarcastic-aside delivery system, a way to meta-comment on everything that’s happening. In one episode, Luci serves as Bean’s writer’s demon, urging her to procrastinate, hate her own work, and be jealous of other writers. But that kind of wit in using Luci as a character only appears in small flashes.
Bean herself comes across as bland and directionless. For Part 1, she began to become interested in her family history and the struggle of elves, but in Part 2, she’s back to being written as a passive participant, along for the ride of whatever happens to be going on around her.
Together, Bean, Elfo, and Luci as a unit are less than the sum of their parts. And the show’s pace–episodes run a full half hour without commercials, giving it a baggy, slow rhythm–doesn’t give their dialogue more room to breathe; it just creates more dead space to enjoy the show’s admittedly lovely animation.
Instead, most of the genuine laughs come from the sneaky background jokes you’d expect from Groening and crew. A village shop, for instance, is called, “Gertrude’s Steins” while a grim box of remains carries a cheerful sign, “Take a skull, leave a skull.” Skimming the backgrounds for gems like these is a good way to stay engaged since most of jokes coming from the mouths of the show’s characters aren’t as funny.
Disenchantment then is the most disappointing kind of streaming-TV era show: one that is pleasant and fitfully amusing in small doses, maybe made to half-watch while you’re folding laundry or shopping on your phone. Saying so stings because Groening’s pedigree is strong and Disenchantment could have been a wild, experimental new way of telling animated stories. But it pales next to Netflix’s own BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth, which still tell better, funnier, and more human stories within their high concepts.
Disenchantment, instead, leaves barely an impression at all. It’s perfectly fine at a time when fine isn’t enough to truly savor.