As The Simpsons draws to a much needed close and after the moderate success of Futurama’s reboot, in many ways I’m glad to see Matt Groening try something different, although in a handful of ways I’m trepidatious. On the one hand we’re applying the beloved comedy that took cartoons in the west to prime time television for decades, to a genre that I have always had a weakness for. On the other hand, that comedy has been getting a little tired after three decades of dominating television.
Nevertheless, I sat and watched Disenchantment. At just a handful of episodes, the whole thing took me less than a day, and gave me a respite from the constant – and I mean constant – marathon of Critical Role I’m currently on. And it also took me by surprise, because I genuinely laughed. I shouldn’t be surprised that a Groening creation makes me laugh, and yet I can’t remember the time I had to double back to watch something because I laughed out loud through some dialogue.
If you’ve watched the trailer you already have the basics. Bean doesn’t want to be a typical princess, so instead she resorts to being a typical teenager, breaking out, rebelling, petty crime and alcohol, anything to escape the marriages that are being forced upon her. King Father is dismissive, loutish, and generally bad at fathering and being a king. Along the way we accumulate an elf, Elfo, who’s grown sick of being so damn cheerful all the time, and escapes into the big, wide, wonderful world; a world full of anger, sadness, and misery, making him and Bean a perfect match. To complete the team trifecta we get a demon, Luci, who’s there for sarcasm and to spy for the secret order of secrets.
Where the biggest difference lies is that Disenchanted has a narrative that exceeds the boundary of the episode! A serial and continuous storyline, something beyond mere running jokes. Added characters who reappear again and again, beyond simple callbacks, there’s an honest to goodness serial story. Better yet, it’s one that’s incomplete.
Series 1 has a story arc, focused predominantly on King Zag’s obsession with drawing the Elixir of Life from the blood of Elfo, showing the strain it puts on his relationship with his daughter and his amphibian wife. We follow it all from Bean’s perspective, as she drunkenly attempts to navigate feudal politics, fantasy challenges and medieval slovenliness, all whilst failing to communicate with her father.
Luci drives a great deal of the mischief, although he’s more there to goad poor innocent Elfo into misbehaving alongside him and Bean, who needed next to no encouragement to commit grand theft wagon and crypt larceny. His sarcastic quips and arguments with the King are some of the funnier moments and he brings along a creepy Van Helsing parody, who is one of the darker and somehow more entertaining villains of the piece. Luci is affixed to a mysterious secret society who seem to want to tear down the establishment, because of course they do.
A few British voices join the cast of familiar favourites, lending some fantasy/medieval cred to the reshuffled Futurama cast (yes we can tell you’re recycling voice casts Groening – it’s fine, but we can tell). With British Sitcom regulars like Lucy Montgomery, Noel Fielding and Matt Berry joining as guest cast, with the latter occupying an intensely Zapp Brannigan-esque role as the prince who… through convoluted logic, ends up as a literal and figurative pig.
I was glad to notice a lack of overt cliche farming in the comedy. It happened from time to time in Futurama, where science fiction was the occasional butt of the joke in a light hearted and well meaning way, though perhaps given more time (and already being provisionally marked for a second season) the fantasy jokes will come in Disenchanted, but a reinvigoration and a new approach to Groening’s tried-and-true comedy now seems like a breath of fresh air in a time where comedy has become cynical of its own cynicism.
Oh sure, it’s all a little formulaic! Elfo is every bit the naive moron that Fry and Homer are. Our strong female character boots are filled, as are those of the sarcastic bad influence. There’s a Hansel and Gretel parody and every episode there’s a host of stereotypes to be found, but there’s no excuses to be made for them. In most cases they’re inevitable, and in others they’re so well selected or well used that one can’t help but offer them a pass at the least, or laugh along if you’re feeling generous at the time.
If you are on Netflix, I certainly advise giving Disenchanted your time. It’ll take very little of it, but is worth offering your attention throughout. Be forewarned, the final episode ends with a cliffhanger and leaves you – not just with questions – but an odd desire for answers, because dammit I think these characters may be more likeable than the Simpsons are these days.
But now what do you think? Would you grant Matt Groening a new lease of life, or should he have packed it up? Share your thoughts on this new Netflix series in the comments below, or over on Facebook and Twitter.