Needs More Enchantment
“Disenchantment” on Netflix
The most surprising thing about the new Matt Groening series “Disenchantment” is that it’s taken the cartoonist/creator this long to tackle the realm of fantasy. The hit animated shows “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” had more than their fair share of Dungeons & Dragons, “Game of Thrones” and Harry Potter jokes, reflecting both the obsessions of Groening and the people who work on his shows. It’s a bit of a letdown, then, to find that first season of “Disenchantment” doesn’t have quite the same sharp satyrical sense of humor.
The show centers on the adventures of Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson from “Broad City”). Unruly and frequently drunk, Bean is chafing against the life of royal responsibility as typified by her surly, orange-haired father and her creepily Eastern European-sounding stepmother (a clear, if not exactly hilarious, jab at Donald and Melania). In the show’s pilot, Bean skips out on her fairy tale wedding and hooks up with a tiny, mischievous demon called Luci (comedian Eric André) and a naïve elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon, star of “Ben and Kate” and co-writer of The Descendants).
Unlike previous Groening-based products, “Disenchantment” has a (mostly) continuing storyline that carries throughout the 10-episode first season. While it’s an interesting departure—giving the show a modest, “binge-watch” momentum—it makes the show’s handful of “stand-alone” episodes feel like so much sitcom filler. The long-form story elements—the king’s quest to distill an “Elixir of Life” from Elfo’s magical blood and the lingering question of who the evil sorcerers who sent Luci are—do eventually pay off in the show’s solid finale. But they feel like too few breadcrumbs spread over the course of the whole season.
Whereas “Futurama” featured deep dive subcultural references and an endless array of über-nerdy math and science jokes (there’s even a real-life mathematical theorem based on one of the show’s episodes), “Disenchantment” takes place in a generic fantasy world with rare references to specific movies, books, games, etc. As a result, there are surprisingly few pointed jokes. (The show’s most well-constructed laugh comes from a barbarian who prefers to let his arrow do the talking—to which a besieged citizen asks if the arrow actually talks. A conversation about the often confusing rules in a magical kingdom follows.) At least the show’s creators take the non-network airing as an opportunity to craft a few “adult”-oriented jokes. More, please.
Jacobson is the best part of the show, her rapid-fire timing giving her atypical princess a distinctly un-Disney vibe. Elfo starts out as an interesting character, rebelling against his jolly compatriots in a cloyingly magical candy forest—but his infatuation with Bean is a rehash of Fry and Leela’s mismatched romance ohn “Futurama.” Luci is just underused, what with the show’s insistence on hanging around the royal palace and dealing mostly with Bean’s family issues. At least the animation is impressive, keeping Groening’s typical “bug eye” style and ramping up the occasional CGI tweak of “Futurama” with some detailed, almost watercolor-style backgrounds.
Both “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” took a few seasons to really ramp up to their jokey best. So there’s every reason to believe, with the talent on board, that “Disenchantment” will do the same. But after 10 episodes, “Disenchantment” is mostly living up to its title.