This Disenchantment review contains spoilers.
Disenchantment Episode 1
Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein (one of the showrunners on the latter seasons of golden age Simpsons) have some experience with this whole sitcom racket, so they know how to set up a world. The first episode of Disenchantment introduces us to the kingdom of Dreamland and its rather informal medieval fantasy setting. We also get a decent feel for our three lead characters—Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson), Elfo (Nat Faxon), and Luci (Eric Andre)—and the dynamic between them.
The episode is also unfortunately not that funny, but that’s an issue I have with this series overall. The jokes are rarely cringingly awful, but also almost never laugh-out-loud funny. In this premiere, most sort of just coast on by to no effect; I acknowledge that they’re jokes, but they do nothing for me one way or the other.
There are a few notably poor moments of attempted comedy. “What in humping heavens is going on?” is a terrible line that barely qualifies as a joke (the phrase “humping heavens” is supposed to be funny in and of itself, I guess). The gag that all the elves (except Kissy) are named after their job or personality plus the letter “o” (e.g., Singo, Worko, Shocko, Superviso, Weirdo, etc.) and the way the gag gets brought back again and again feels like classic Groening sitcom material, but it’s just too basic a concept to be very funny. The scene where Elfo has a meal with some poor farmers—though it’s worth mentioning it begins with a beautiful establishing shot—also has some lines that don’t really work. The self-hating peasant husband declares “We deserve to be beaten with our food!” which is so logistically impossible it kills the joke.
Slapstick violence has been a staple of Groening’s sitcoms since The Simpsons, but it’s not typically my favorite type of comedy. Cartoons getting hurt is just nowhere near as funny as real people getting hurt because the stakes are so low. We know they’ll be fine because, well, they’re cartoons. Disenchantment takes place in the cutthroat Middle Ages so, unfortunately, the violence has only ramped up and this episode contains a lot of it even for this series.
Most obviously, there’s the first time Bean meets Luci and proceeds to beat the crap out of him for, like, a while. It’s established quickly that Luci is a demon who can bounce back from anything, so the stakes are nonexistent. Also, we just met the guy. We have no feelings toward him one way or the other, so we’re evidently supposed to find the violence funny on the face of it.
On the positive side, though they didn’t make me laugh out loud, there are some clever lines. Elfo saying, “Hey, he’s making fun of my dreams. That’s what friends do!” is a great one. The sequence of Bean’s half-fish-person stepmother Oona (Tress MacNeille) trying to give Bean honeymoon advice is probably the funniest of the episode (“I don’t know. Just leave your eggs on the nightstand and get out of there”). The setup and payoff of the racist antelope was a good surprise. Plus, Matt Berry is in this episode as Prince Merkimer and his voice is a joy to listen to in general.
However, the strength of this episode is in the storytelling. It tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the world and the characters to get invested in the series and even though it’s one of the season’s longest episodes, coming in at a whopping 35 minutes, it mostly stays engaging because the people behind it know how to do a solid sitcom pilot. Bean, Luci, and Elfo are well-defined as friendless misfits that you can believe would fall into a clique together. The only glaring flaw that bugs me is that Bean tries to get rid of Luci but never questions where he came from. It just seems like something one would naturally do.
Also, though they don’t ruin the episode, there are bits that could be cut to bring down the flabby 35-minute runtime. The aforementioned farmer scene doesn’t add much. And there are two action sequences—Elfo’s escape and Bean’s barfight—that contain no jokes. They aren’t imaginative enough and the animation is too basic for them to be at all thrilling either. (Quick aside: though the animation can be lacking, I do love the art of this series. The bright and varied hues and lighting, combined with Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, elevate Disenchantment, even when its jokes aren’t so hot.)
As far as the storyline goes, this is a pretty solid series’ pilot. I recognize this review has mostly focused on negatives but it’s tougher to describe the machinations that make for a functional sitcom plot than it is to nitpick out its missteps. It’s a perfectly cromulent setup for a sitcom. It’s too bad it’s not funnier.
Joe Matar watches a lot of cartoons and a lot of sitcoms. He’s obsessed with story structure so that’s what all his reviews are about. Joe also writes about video games on occasion. He has an MA in English if you can believe it. Read more of his work here. Follow Joe on Twitter for more fun @joespirational!