Somewhere in Hollywood, midway through the decade, Matt Groening looked at Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein to say, “Let’s make a TV show for this one guy in Toronto” – and Disenchantment was born, a show that immediately biases me for being the combination of my two favourite things: fantasy and Futurama.
Having once upon a time hosted You Guessed It! You Can’t Unguess It! Futurama Trivia at the Gladestone Hotel in Toronto, and having also once been offered a three-book deal to write epic fantasy novels, I am the target audience here to an intense percentile. It is beholden of me to mention this straight off the bat, but while it means I’m very excited for Disenchantment, it also means there is plenty of potential for disaster. If the internet has taught us nothing else, it’s that nerds are passionate about what they love. It could stand to go back to teaching us other things.
Disenchantment follows the poor judgment of Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson) as she struggles to find her place within the kingdom of Zod – er, Zog – her disinterested, dispirited and distant father. Helping her through the challenges of an adolescence principally spent drunk are her shoulder demons: Elfo (Nat Faxon), an adorable and optimistic Santa-style elf (rather than a Legolas-style elf), and Luci (Eric Andre), a literal shoulder demon who champions evil as Aaron Eckhart champions cigarettes in Thank You for Smoking. An assortment of stupid knights, scheming courtesans, and dirty peasants round out the extended cast.
If this seems like a well of potential, then it should: by 1999 Groening had looked at The Simpsons and realized what it lacked was a place for stories to go. Having a decade of seasons with which to explore the Simpson family and the town of Springfield, each new episode took the show further from plausibility into absurdity. Futurama answered this conundrum. Were it to ever encounter the same pitfall, there was the infinity of space to explore for more story lines. Going to a new planet was always plausible, and the planet’s absurdity was built right into the fabric of the show. Disenchantment is certain to follow the same vein because as science makes anything possible in science fiction, magic makes anything possible in fantasy. New worlds, new creatures, and new magics await those creative enough to conceive them.
Perhaps this is why the opening salvo of episodes feel small, tugged in tight to the (visually impressive) setting of the Dreamland castle and nearby woods. The show also takes time to world build and develop character while the expectant populace of fans, no doubt already well-versed in The Simpsons and Futurama, watch with the assumption Disenchantment will shortly ascend to the plateau of greatness typically achieved once Groening shows get their feet wet. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. That’s a lot of pressure for a pilot.
As if recognizing this, the pilot is 35 minutes long to ensure every key element of the show is covered, even leaving on a cliff hanger lover’s cliff hanger, and while it doesn’t pack the punch of Futurama’s immaculate pilot episode, it sets the stage for hijinx to ensue. It is also certain to include a Game of Thrones joke to ensure you know what you’re watching. While the first few episodes were fun reminders of the team’s levity (half the cast and production development are plucked right from Futurama – it’s a family affair now, folks), as the episodes got deeper into the debut season curious plot choices stifled some of that energy.
On the whole, the show is quite funny – excelling not so much at big jokes but taking typical fantasy tropes and cleverly inverting them or avoiding them all together. The whole show reminds me of the nuanced joke from the “Saturday Morning Fun Pit” episode of Futurama where the Planet Express crew are the cast of Scooby Doo being chased by a ghost through a spoooooky mansion. In a classic send-up of those scenes in Scooby Doo where they run in and out of doors in a hallway full of doors, Bender and Fry run through a single door and then absolutely nothing happens for 5-10 seconds of footage. It’s a sideways approach to comedy that can’t help but make you smile. Disenchantment’s dialogue between a grumpy commoner and invading viking-type about the nature of magic and flaming arrows is a perfect example of what fans want from this show, and there are plenty of quiet lines that took lots of clever writing to perfect as well. I must also note that the show’s music is excellent. Never a dull theme song on a Groening show.
Bean holds her own as the strongest character on the show, her loveable mug and bleached hair ensuring she stands out in a crowd if her penchant for debauchery hasn’t already. The show does a good job of establishing a moral compass, despite her typical lack-thereof, while enjoying the amoral kicks Bender brought to Futurama – only lady style! (Hint: lady style is exactly the same as robot style but without the metal). Luci seems to be the trigger character here, although he is yet to dazzle as his potential suggests. Any character with infernal properties but only minimal proportions is a recipe for laughs, and I can’t say I didn’t smile every time he got punted. Elfo is the weak link of the trio, whose happy-go-lucky nature has already run dry for jokes. Efforts to bring him to the dark side are equally unfounded since Bean and Luci are already there. Three of a kind creates no tension. Elfo also has the odd trait of seeming outdated merely from the extended Homer squiggle in his hair, harkening back to the earliest days of The Simpsons. As a father, I can’t help but hear Pickle from Blaze and the Monster Machines to boot – although I can’t in good conscience type that without noting the plethora of voices that are a clean match to Futurama, from John DiMaggio’s… scruffier… Bender voice as Zog to Maurice Lamarche’s Prime Minister Odval, who sounds like a tribute to Trisol’s Prime Minister Gorgak, voiced by real life buddy Billy West.
My main critique of Disenchantment is a notable absence of funny side characters. Groening’s two previous offerings are chalk-full of hilarious citizens and zany robots – unique one-time or reoccurring characters that really bring their respective communities to life. Ralph Wiggums and Dr. Zoidbergs. Disenchantment’s Dankmire characters, Queen Oona and Prince Derek, do little, even with a whole episode traveling to their homeland, while the characters with the most potential – the scheme-y Odval and wannabe wizard Sorcerio – are yet to be used for much comedy outside of Socerio being unable to shuffle. With Game of Thrones so popular, the time is ripe for an overly-serious character, or a rooftop assassin epic fantasy trope – someone who parodies fantasy literature and the grim sword and sorcery worlds popular over the last few decades. Instead, the show sticks to ‘soft’ fantasy, such as Grimm faerie tales and cereal-style elves (rather than Legolas-style elves). The fantasy fan in me was less enthused than the Futurama fan, most definitely. Perhaps the existing characters will round out in time, or new characters will show up who consistently provide comedy gold, but until then Disenchantment spends far more time solidifying Bean, Elfo and Luci than it does exploring its supporting cast. Perhaps it is aware of the aforementioned plateau and knows it has time to dig up (stupid).
All in all, Disenchantment is an easily watchable show with plenty of sight gags, superb animation, slick production, a romping soundtrack, and the force of heavyweight Rough Draft Studios to ensure it makes its way into people’s viewing queues. As a Netflix binge property, it may never develop the widespread acclaim or fandom of Groening’s previous shows, no matter the show itself, but it is still far too good a thing to pass up. Pretty sure critics said the same thing about Futurama’s first season, and time proved the best was yet to come.
Disenchantment arrives on Netflix on August 17th!