Matt Groening has only created two shows. One of them was great and the other is an all-time classic that changed comedy forever. So, when he says he’s doing a third series, it’s worth giving it a shot. Kindly, Netflix sent me nearly the entire first season (seven out of ten episodes).
Disenchantment looks a lot like a medieval Futurama, but it’s more accurate to say it falls somewhere in the middle of that series and The Simpsons. Futurama embraced its Star Trek parodyness, sending the Planet Express crew off on adventures away from home in more episodes than not. Disenchantment typically keeps its plots anchored to its home base, the castle and kingdom of Dreamland, making it feel closer to a conventional sitcom than a D&D campaign.
Like any good Groening production, it’s got an ensemble cast, but this one feels uniquely pared down. There’s only really three (or four-ish) main characters and Bean (Abbi Jacobson), the tomboyish princess of Dreamland, is the obvious protagonist. Her friends, Elfo (Nat Faxon) and Luci (Eric Andre), get their own plotlines, but Bean, at least so far, is the only one with a family, allowing the series to deepen her character through her relationship with them, most specifically with her father, King Zog (John DiMaggio, doing a different enough voice from Bender for it to not be distracting). Also, Luci is Bean’s personal demon, so he’s usually semi-tethered to whatever Bean is doing.
Also unique for a Groening sitcom is that, as this series follows the Netflix model of an entire season being produced and released all at once, the plot is consciously serialized. There are independent conflicts in each episode, but some pick up directly where the preceding left off, and certain plot threads persist and build over the course of the entire season.
Disenchantment shines best in its plotting, fairly consistently setting up and paying off storylines in a satisfying way and keeping things interesting throughout. I’ve always hated how Netflix shows clock in at arbitrary lengths (an aspect of why Arrested Development’s return is so poor is the lengthy episode runtimes result in much slower pacing). However, though Disenchantment’s episodes are a bit longer than your average network sitcom’s, mostly coming in at a little under a full half-hour each, I never felt that they dragged.
Unfortunately, the jokes don’t fare quite so well. Simply put, Disenchantment isn’t hugely funny. The average episode inspires more chuckling than outright laughter. It’s hard to pin down why, but it’s certainly nothing to do with the cast. I’m lukewarm on Nat Faxon as Elfo (sorry, Mr. Faxon), but Abbi Jacobson and Eric Andre are amazing in their roles and the rest of the cast is stellar from top to bottom, filled out mostly by Futurama and The Mighty Boosh alum (Matt Berry, sadly, is only sporadically involved).
The middling humor must therefore be down to the writing. The writers’ room is made up of a combination of Simpsons and Futurama vets, as well as Gravity Falls’ writers (and at least one episode is attributed to the brilliant Rich Fulcher). However, the jokes simply don’t sing the way they did on The Simpsons during its prime or Futurama at its best. The comedy style feels charmingly familiar in that Groening way. It’s that cocktail of cutaway gags, funny signs, characters acting impossibly stupid, and cartoon violence. The approach is solid, but the writing just isn’t quite up to snuff. Jokes are rarely outright bad, but they also usually fall well below hilarious. It can be hard to pinpoint exactly makes comedy work or not, but it’s possible some of this can be attributed to the length of the episodes affecting the pacing. Again, the storytelling works fine, but perhaps the jokes suffer.
I’d also like it if the series didn’t rely on violence as much as it does, not because I’m bothered by it, but because it’s almost never funny. I recognize it’s a holdover from The Simpsons (Homer gets roughed up a lot), but maybe it’s gotten a bit stale (one questions if Homer getting hurt was ever one of The Simpsons’ strong points in the first place). It certainly feels as though the series falls back on it a little too often. Luci, being a demon, can’t die, so Disenchantment takes great glee in regularly beating the crap out of him, but it’s frankly just boring to watch.
Some of it may be down to the art as well. The quality of the animation is like Futurama during its Comedy Central seasons, where it was a bit cheaper and choppier. The colors and art are appealing, so when Disenchantment is just being a sitcom, it’s pleasant to look at. But in terms of animation, though there are some nice flourishes (whenever Luci does something otherworldly, it’s very smooth), the somewhat stilted character motion makes action-heavy sequences fall flat. Speaking of flat, occasionally, the series will pull a fancy camera move using 3D backgrounds that makes the characters look 2D (a la Parappa the Rapper) in a way they’re obviously not meant to. To be clear, this is an attractive show overall. It’s just that there are areas they skimped on, and they unfortunately stand out.
The art is bolstered massively by Mark Mothersbaugh’s score. Disenchantment has an awesome, catchy theme and variations of it are heard throughout the series, changing in tone to match their respective scenes. It’s lucky that the music is so professional and well-used throughout. The series is truly elevated by it and, paired with the colorful visuals, makes for, at times, stirringly beautiful moments.
That professionalism is what makes Disenchantment a decent series. When Matt Groening develops a show, he’s able to assemble a stable of top-notch people for it. Basically, there’s simply too much talent in and behind the scenes of Disenchantment for it to fail. It’s a reasonably good-looking show. It’s a great-sounding show. It’s a wonderfully acted show. The storytelling is above-average sitcom fare (which is no small feat; great sitcom plotting is rarely achieved). Still, it’s just not all that funny.
I enjoyed Disenchantment, but as of right now, I’m in for it largely for the plot and to see if it can build into something greater come next season.
The entire first season of Disenchantment will be available to stream on Netflix on August 17, 2018.
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