About halfway through the first episode of Disenchantment, wanderlust-stricken elf Elfo sees his destination, the human city of Dreamland, on the horizon. “Wow!”, he exclaims, “It’s so small! Oh wait, I’m far away!” End scene.
In many ways, this joke is emblematic of the show’s debut ten-episode run, recently debuted on Netflix.
Disenchantment certainly has the weight of expectation on its shoulders. The new series from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, it also reunites the core creative team of the latter show, including voice actors John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche, David Herman and Billy West. The concept alone is salve to the wounds of those still lamenting Futurama‘s (most recent) demise, but throw in the bankroll and creative freedom offered by Netflix and you get a tantalizing prospect. Right now, however, it seems like Disenchantment is going to need a fair bit of work before it starts to fulfill the potential its staff lineup promises.
Billed as a fantasy-themed version of Futurama, Disenchantment follows the misadventures of alcoholic, carousing reluctant princess Bean, her pact-bound demon Luci (No prize for guessing what that’s short for) and the aforementioned Elfo as they deal with arranged marriages, kidnappings, inter-kingdom politics and the usual grab-bag of neuroses Groening loves to inflict on his characters. If you imagine Futurama with Leela with a shot of Bender as the hero, Fry as the sidekick and Bender again in the form of Nintendo’s Mr. Game and Watch crossed with a demon-cat, you’re already most of the way towards getting a handle on this trio.
Whereas The Simpsons and Futurama overcame their growing pains because of the freshness of their ideas, Disenchantment‘s determination to re-fry (boom boom) the latter show only exacerbates its own debut jitters. The show works hard to establish the characters and their relationships, but minus any consistent vision of them past what’s come before. Bean is a free spirit wanting escape from the stifling pressures of royal life, yet she still manages to hang around anyway. Elfo is a depressive who leaves the jolly Elfen kingdom to find people who are just as depressed as he, only to find that his still-whimsical elf nature makes him the chipper one in human circles (An irony packed with comedic and character potential which the show apparently fails to notice). Then you have Luci, a surprisingly chill demon whose job is meant to be to tempt Bean into greater acts of disruption and debauchery, but… doesn’t, really, because Bean’s raucous enough already.
Paradoxically, a lot of the blame for these inconsistencies may be a result of the show trying too hard to develop the characters too quickly. The previous shows took their time refining the characters and their relationships, but Disenchantment fair busts a gut trying to sell you on just how much these characters are growing. Bean seems to rebel, reconsider and forgive her father King Zog’s overbearingness every episode, while in turn Zog lurches higgledy-piggledy between fickle tyrant, loveable goofball and sad dad at the writers’ slightest whims. Most frustratingly, Elfo is quickly relegated to ‘unrequited mope’ status as they attempt to replicate the Fry-Leela dynamic in a fraction of the screen time given to that love story.
As the quote at the top of the review demonstrates, even a lot of the jokes suffer from a lack of refinement, like they just knocked out first drafts of the first few episodes and went with that. You may think the ‘re-fry’ pun above was bad, but it’s at about the same level as the jokes in the bulk of this first ten-episode brace. As with many aspects of the show, it’s hard to shake the feeling that where Futurama and peak Simpsons reveled in their weirdness, there’s the constant nagging sense to Disenchantment‘s writing of punches being pulled, extra steps to push ideas beyond the expected not taken. This, for a show focusing on a booze-swilling, gambling princess, a chronically depressed elf and a demon, is more than a little concerning. Not even appearances by Matt Berry and Noel Fielding are substantial enough to give the humour the kickstart it needs, and while the show provides a few good belly-laughs it stumbles to provide the freshness of the previous shows, even in their own debut seasons.
It even feels a bit half-arsed at the conceptual level. While hyped as Groening and Co.’s take on the fantasy genre, Disenchantment draws almost exclusively from the already-dry fairytale tropes well, leaving the far-less satirized High Fantasy genre pretty much untouched. Sure, they throw in the odd Game of Thrones reference, but riffing on a show that itself tweaks fantasy tropes in its own, wildly successful way, only ends up throwing the lack of inspiration here into sharp relief. Disappointing, seeing how much value this team got out of mining the deepest cuts of sci-fi media in Futurama. It’s another example of Disenchanted opting for the easily-digestible, with little evidence of the voracious geek enthusiasm in which the previous show was marinated.
Even for a first season of a high-concept comedy show, Disenchantment suffers from a severe lack of focus, especially coming from such an experienced team. While it improves significantly in the last three episodes, but the amount of time it takes to get interesting undercuts the impact of its cliffhanger finale, resulting in an overall sense of anticlimax. Naturally, they already have Season Two greenlit: Netflix ordered a further ten episodes on top of this first lot, and with the pedigree involved it would take an absolute disaster for them to stop this gravy train anytime soon. What remains to be seen, is whether this show can find a voice with which to cast its own spell.