Disenchantment is the third TV show created by Matt Groening. The Netflix animated series (streaming Aug. 17) joins a holy lineage. The Simpsons started just in time to invent the 1990s. It produced eight or nine perfect seasons of television, then also a couple hundred episodes that certainly do exist. Catch me on the right night with the right amount of Duff on the brain, and I’ll try to convince you Futurama was even better: a rocket-burst of goofy-brilliant imagination, the kind of science-fiction satire that makes actual science fiction look unserious by comparison.
Where Futurama joked about the far future, Disenchantment lurches back toward the past. In a muddy kingdom called Dreamland, Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson) is about to get married off by cruel papa King Zøg (John DiMaggio). She seeks something bigger out of life, which could make her a Disney princess. She has platinum-white hair, a look I choose to describe as Daenerys-esque. (No, no, Khaleesi-ish, that’s better.) And she drinks as a passion and a hobby. We meet her in a bar, and it’s barely a minute before she lets out one of those monumental Matt Groening burps, a Barney belch so powerful the whole face vibrates.
In the first episode, Bean meets a couple new buddies. There’s Elfo (Nat Faxon), an elf who leaves his species’ forest utopia seeking adventure in the human world. And there’s a little demon named Luci (Eric Andre), who looks vaguely like a cat plotting the destruction of all humanity. So, like a cat. Together, they set off on… adventures? No, that implies excitement. Capers? No, that implies humor. Shenanigans? Too active. Stuff happens to them, I guess, and sometimes they respond with a wisecrack.
Disenchantment is a strange show. The batch of episodes I’ve seen are labeled as “chapters,” with the promise of an ongoing story. Luci was sent by some mysterious people, for mysterious reasons, with an oft-teased plan that points toward a larger dark motive. But after the first couple of episodes, there’s no obvious narrative momentum. The interplay between characters feels off. Luci keeps telling Bean to do the wrong thing, and she does: That’s the inciting incident, and then sometimes no incident gets incited. It quickly becomes a joke factory for fantasy riffs. You can’t execute an elf by hanging because they don’t weigh enough. Tinkerbell-looking fairies are prostitutes, which is funny, because prostitutes. There’s one full-fledged fairy-tale spoof: Hansel and Gretel, like you’ve never seen them before! No, not witch hunters, something else! Some seductive mermaids call an unlucky sailor to their island, but the mermaids are walruses, but they’re still seductive, ack!
This isn’t really aiming to be the Futurama of fantasy. Which is a good thing — I’m not sure there’s room left for a full-fledged parody of this well-traveled genre. Life on the internet is long breaks between Game of Thrones jokes, and the late, great Terry Pratchett left behind his life’s work of Discworld novels, Swiftian satire featuring witches and wizards and Reapers and cosmic elephants. But maybe Disenchantment would’ve benefited from more specificity. As it is, the show’s backdrop feels generically grim-historic, all leech jokes and plague jokes, the “Bring out your dead!” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except as a whole show. The hit rate’s low. Some of the castle guards have a band called the Pillage People (grooooan). The band mostly plays at corn exchanges, and Bean says, “Maybe someday you’ll play at Cornchella” (GROOOOAN).
What went wrong here? Besides the lead voice actors, Groening’s collaborators have a good track record. DiMaggio joins fellow Futurama alumni Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, and David Herman on the supporting cast. Groening developed Disenchantment with Josh Weinstein, who wrote classic Simpsons episodes alongside Bill Oakley, an executive producer of this new series. Futurama co-creator David X. Cohen is also on the writing staff.
The main feeling you get is that everyone’s stoked to work for a service without any apparent standards and practices division. Disenchantment is gory; at one point, Elfo recreates the Buster Keaton house gag, but the house is an ogre missing his midsection. A lot of this just seems nasty, though, gross without being funny. You remember that Game of Thrones found a rather droll punchline pouring molten lava on a screaming man, his golden skull thunking against the ground. Dreamland seems to weather a new massacre every few weeks, and the regularity gets depressing. Of all the main characters, only Luci really has a pulse, a fully depraved little devil whose intentions seem to be positively Sauronic.
There’s a low-key boom in brilliant TV animation these days: The deranged anti-humanism of Rick and Morty, the candy-colored muchness of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Steven Universe, the kinetically rebooted DuckTales. Next month sees the return of Bojack Horseman, Netflix’s best ongoing series. Catch me on the right night with way too much Duff on the brain, and I’ll tell you Bojack is the modern-day Simpsons, an ever-expanding silly city symphony carving a precise path between brilliant cultural commentary and up-close emotionality. Compared to all that, Disenchantment feels half-formed, a bit plastic.The vibe is like one of the wilder “Treehouse of Horror” segments, the kind where the big joke is how many grotesque ways Simpsons characters can die. In the first episode, Bean declares that she wants to escape her family, strike out in a new direction away from the royal role she’s forced to play. That might be where the show’s going, but the early episodes are all stuck in Dreamland. Pretty soon you want to leave, too. C