It makes a certain amount of sense that Matt Groening’s third TV series would be Disenchantment. If The Simpsons tackles our heightened present through the eyes of a dysfunctional nuclear family, and Futurama skewered an imagined future influenced by the whims of 20th century science fiction, then Disenchantment broadly examines “the past” via the medieval fantasy genre. Like Groening’s previous shows, Disenchantment sports an impressive setting bounded only by the writers’ imagination, in this case the kingdom of Dreamland, and an ever expanding cast of characters, two elements crucial for his brand of humanism and satire to flourish. Anyone weaned on Groening’s work will find that his new series fits exactly in his wheelhouse but with one obvious difference: It’s streaming on Netflix instead of airing on television.
Now, that’s not necessarily a prohibitive factor, but Netflix’s few creative restrictions and seemingly limitless budget constitute a double-edged sword for TV writers, especially those weaned on writing for network. Groening and showrunners Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley are all veterans of the traditional half-hour sitcom, complete with commercial breaks and tight act structure, and they have done some of the medium’s best work within those constraints. Will the platform’s freedoms affect the quality of Disenchantment or will it be business as usual but with ten episodes at once instead of weekly installments?
Unfortunately, Disenchantment’s pilot, “Chapter I: A Princess, an Elf, and a Demon Walk Into A Bar,” falls into a familiar streaming trap: It plays like an extended first act rather than a discrete episode. Written by Groening and Weinstein, the pilot inelegantly introduces the series’ main characters without much regard for pacing or timing, taking its sweet time playing in the world of Dreamland but rushing through the character relationships. It begins haphazardly and ends on a semi-literal cliffhanger, and while plenty of events occur in between, none of it carries much weight or significance. Worst of all, it’s all around light on jokes. “Chapter I” scans as an introduction ostensibly satisfied in the knowledge that audiences will forgive its flaws because they’ll most likely just power through to the next episode right away. While that might be true, Disenchantment’s first impression still isn’t terribly strong. (It should be noted that future episodes of Disenchantment are stand-alone installments and don’t necessarily have this problem.)
Disenchantment introduces us to Princess Tiabeanie (Abbie Jacobson)—the rebellious party animal daughter of King Zøg, ruler of Dreamland—who is set to be married off to Prince Guysbert of the nearby kingdom of Bentwood in order to secure an alliance between the two empires. Naturally, she’s opposed to the wedding, but has reluctantly accepted that her impeding nuptials represent her lot in life. On her wedding day, she discovers that she’s been cursed with her own personal demon (Eric Andre), Luci, who is tasked to steer Bean towards the darkness, unaware that she’s primed for that direction anyway. Meanwhile, in the hidden world of Elfwood, the young Elfo (Nat Faxon) chafes against the cloying cheeriness of his homeland, reminiscent of Smurf Village only adorned with candy. After being caught cavorting with Kissy the Elf, he’s sentenced to death by hanging (from the Gumdrop Tree, of course), but escapes Elfworld in search of a new life. He ends up in Dreamland just as Bean is about to be married. All hell breaks loose and the three eventually escape the kingdom. Prince Merkimer (Matt Berry), Guysbert’s brother and Bean’s new groom after Guysbert is fatally impaled by a chair at the wedding, chases after them at the behest of Zøg.
There are a handful of good moments here and there—Elfo expressing frustration at the nonsensical candy economy in Elfworld, the jester cracking wise at Zøg’s expense only to be thrown out a window by an executioner, the Wish Master being a Wash Master—but “Chapter I” doesn’t put nearly as much effort into establishing character as it does setting. Granted, there’s only so much work one can accomplish in a pilot, but most of the main relationships on Disenchantment feel too convenient (or, worse, arbitrary) because it takes way too long to bring the trio together. Compare this episode the Futurama pilot: Fry meets Leela four minutes into the episode and then meets Bender eight minutes in. Meanwhile, it takes 24 minutes to bring Elfo into the fold.
Sure, Disenchantment relies on some character shortcuts—Luci is the devil on Bean’s shoulder while Elfo harbors what’s bound to be an unrequited attraction to her, whadya need a road map?—but they don’t compensate for the general lack of care involved. By the time the trio are jumping off a cliff together to avoid returning to Dreamland, the show acts like their bound by friendship, but it feels unearned. The world is fully formed from the get-go, but the people are so far too thin. Even Bean feels pretty one note and we spend the most time with her character.
Obviously, Disenchantment will develop and relationships will fall into place, but the goal of a first episode, regardless of whether it premieres on TV or the Internet, should be to get audiences to stick around. It feels like Disenchantment is banking on audiences liking the fantasy world enough to just soldier on, but Groening’s best work always foregrounds character as well as setting, grounding proceedings in balanced emotion. There’s a moment when Bean asks her new companions to identify the feeling inside her that she doesn’t want to drink away, and Elfo believes that it’s hope. It’s a nice moment that connects with the character’s waywardness, but it feels untethered to the wackiness that precedes and follows it. Disenchantment will likely clarify all of this in subsequent episodes, but right now, everything feels like a means to service the world when it should be the other way around.
- On Disenchantment Signage: 1. “Welcome to Dreamland: Now With 5 Village Idiots”; 2. “Now Entering Enchanted Forest: Beware of Racist Antelope.”
- I appreciate the numerous Futurama alums in this show. There’s John DiMaggio as Zøg, sporting a Queens accent by way of some Bender, and Billy West, but there’s also Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeile, and David Herman.
- Out of the three main voice performances, Andre’s comes across as the most natural, Faxon’s is the most forced, and Jacobson’s lands somewhere in the middle. However, voice acting is a unique beast, and actors’ comfort with their characters tends to organically develop over time. I can easily see everyone settling into their respective roles soon enough.
- My favorite joke of the episode was hands down the Humble Farmers who are appalled at Elfo’s gratitude. As he leaves, Elfo thanks them again for their food. “It was delicious!” he says. “You’re ruining our lives!” they cry in response.
- Groening and Weinstein take some broad pot shots at religion via the woman leading the service at the church: “I mean, nobody knows anything for sure, but if I talk with confidence, you dopes will believe anything I say!”
- “On my wedding day, I also had butterflies in stomach. I shouldn’t have eaten so many.”
- “Yeah, singing while working isn’t happiness. It’s mental illness.”
- “Hey! He’s making fun of my dreams. That’s what friends do!”