TV Review: Disenchantment (Season 1)
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Disenchantment has been a long time coming. In the 1980s, American television was saturated with cheesy un-realistic perfect families in sitcoms like The Waltons, The Jeffersons, Full House, The Cosby Show and Family Matters. The Simpsons came and satirized what had come before within an inch of it's life. For a neon yellow family with four fingers, the Simpsons became family to people across the world - they were imperfect and real.
In 1999, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, alongside his fellow writers like David X. Cohen, started a new show called Futurama. Routed in the staff’s passion for sci-fi, high and low, it became clear that Groening and his peers were consistently able to create TV that defines its genre and era. From family sitcom to sci-fi workplace drama, they’ve made a tremendous mark on media today.
The animation is beautiful, with backgrounds often appearing like old Disney cell animation. New voice actors to the usual ones called upon by Groening help shake up the auditory landscape of his show. Eric Andre is perfect as Luci, while Abbi Jacobson from Broad City hits the right notes, happy and sad, as protagonist Princess Tiabeanie (Bean) - an alcoholic teenager and princess pressured to marry and still trying to find out who she really is. Meanwhile the extended cast is also a treat.
So what about Disenchantment? It fits into the context of its creators’ filmography while being fantastically new at the same time. It is a fantasy coming-of-age story and on a platform abruptly different to FOX - Netflix, the online streaming platform. While The Simpsons and Futurama have been weekly, episodic and run into two dozen episodes, Disenchantment's first season consists of only ten episodes which have been dropped all at once and are serialized. Serialization being something the show-runners have specifically stated they were excited to try - events for the first time in a Matt Groening effort can have true consequences without a reset after the credits.
Disenchantment is also part of the fantasy zeitgeist present today. Fantasy is cool. While media such as Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, LOTR and even children’s series like Adventure Time, have enormous fanbases, the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s and 1990s are increasingly creating content. D&D is how the kids in Stranger Things make sense of the events they encounter, Dan Harmon does a show or VRV called HarmonQuest in which he and celebrities do a D&D quest with live gameplay combined with animations. The McElroy Brothers' D&D podcast called The Adventure Zone, is one of the biggest podcasts in the world, and now in a graphic novel adaption of one storyline, a best-seller on the New York Best Seller List.
But, how is the show itself? It’s fantastic in many aspects, but doesn’t pass the extremely high expectations that its origins have instilled in it. Groening and Josh Weinstein are the main people involved. While Groening created the Simpsons, Josh Weinstein wrote and was showrunner on many of the Simpsons’s Golden Age classic episodes. The success of Futurama made audiences and critics expect an instant hit in the same way. Disenchantment is instead a beautiful and promising work in progress.
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The serialized story adds weight to each episode as they connect more than in former works. Bean fights to escape an arranged marriage, to find friends who accept her and discover what her purpose is. There are problems however. It takes a few episodes for the show to really get going. As others have commented, it works best outside the city of Dreamland, the location soon stifling what we see in glimpses is a huge and varied world.
Additionally the jokes just aren’t up to scratch. Futurama was hilarious from its first season. Instead the show has more in common with The Simpsons' first season. The show in its infancy was full of jokes, but was more serious than later seasons. Disenchantment instead usually raises a smile or a muffled giggle, but not the reaction that jokes like the Steamed Hams sequence from 22 Short Films About Springfield gets even nearly 30 years on. Like Futurama however, it excels in sight gags and smart references. Obviously the throne that ends Bean’s first husband, is a reference to the Iron Throne of Game of Throne; the Dog milk joke alludes to Red Dwarf; the Plague chart echoes Monty Python; while the depiction of a police chase using donkeys braying and red/blue candles in lanterns atop them is an inspired way of depicting medieval police cars! Futurama is referenced multiple times while D&D, a central influence on the show, is given a shout out via the fierceness of the gnomes fighting ogres in the first episode. In the game, gnomes gain bonuses for their armour class when battling such creatures.
Personal favourites are Bean’s visual similarity to Daenerys Targaryen, the 7/11 Roman Numeral pun, the donkey police cars, the absurd names of Elfo’s people (Leavo, Returno etc), the lemon wars, You’ve been Chazed and the peasant couple who chase Elfo off for being a “praiser” when he compliments the food they give him too much.
Despite having certain problems with the first season, I have what Bean describes as, “this weird feeling I don’t what to drink away”; hope. The last two episodes are masterful, destroy the status quo developed and leave us on a cliff hanger that Groening likely relished due to the usual constraints of episodic TV. The tropes to be explored and taken apart next season look even more exciting, and the comedy potential is significant. Disenchantment did not disappoint, but leaves you waiting for more. Let’s hope it delivers as it continues. Disenchantment is available to stream on Netflix now.