Netflix has been producing some fantastic animated shows over the past few years, using the flexibility of the medium to tell powerful stories by mixing zany comedy with heavier themes. With season 5 of BoJack Horseman premiering on September 14th and the second season of Big Mouth due out later in 2018, Netflix was clearly looking to add to its stable of successful cartoons for adults when it contracted The Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening for a 20-episode series. Unfortunately, Disenchantment, which drops its 10-episode first season on August 17th, plays its story too safe and winds up looking dated and bland compared to Netflix’s other animated offerings.
Set in the medieval kingdom of Dreamland, Disenchantment aims to parody fantasy the way Futurama parodies science fiction. The story follows Bean (Abbi Jacobson), a princess who was a hard-drinking misfit even before she was gifted with a personal demon named Luci (Eric Andre) to act as a literal devil on her shoulder. They’re joined by Elfo (Nat Faxon), who combines traits of a Smurf, a Keebler Elf, and one of Snow White’s dwarves. Elfo has left his oppressively cheerful homeland in search of the right to not be happy, but the scripts almost instantly abandon his initial motivation to experience new things and turn his crush on Bean into his dominant trait.
The Futurama parallels are particularly heavy in the show’s first two episodes. Bean is a version of Leela; both have poor impulse control that gets in the way of their otherwise quick wits and overall competence. Bean is being wooed by a prince who’s nearly identical to Zapp Brannigan in personality and tone. When she runs away with Elfo and Luci, who act as stand-ins for Fry and Bender, respectively, she gets some advice from an old fairy sex worker voiced by Tress MacNeille, who also voiced the recurring elderly prostitute Petunia on Futurama. The show soon settles into a formula where episodes begin with King Zog (John DiMaggio) trying to find some way to fix his daughter, or Bean being left to her own devices and getting into trouble — pretty much replicating the effect of Professor Farnsworth sending the Planet Express crew on Futurama’s episodic missions.
Sticking to Futurama’s formula would be fine if Disenchantment also replicated its quality. Futurama poked fun not only at science fiction tropes, but at politics and capitalism, while also delivering some genuinely emotional stories. Nothing in the first seven episodes of Disenchantment has that power or bite. Groening and his team just don’t seem to have a good grounding in fantasy tropes or history in the same way they’re grounded in mainstream social issues. Aside from some Game of Thrones-inspired jokes in the first episode, the humor mostly hearkens back to Monty Python, with gags about medieval life, its abundant plagues, and its lack of child labor laws. One of the more fantasy-driven episodes presents a spin on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, but it doesn’t deliver anything besides tired German stereotypes and Hannibal Lecter jokes.
The fantasy genre offers some fertile ground for parody, given how often it relies on baroque intrigue, complicated magic systems, and epic quests. But the show leaves satire aside in favor of simple anachronism-based humor. Some of the gags work, like a scene where Bean steals a carriage and is pursued by guards on siren-wearing donkeys whose hee-haws provide the alarm sounds. But most are as flat as the royal family sitting on their thrones eating from TV dinner trays, while the queen complains about having to watch the jester while they eat.
Groening promised Disenchantment would have a serialized plot, but in the seven episodes sent for initial review, that structure seems to fall away after the second episode. There’s ostensibly a metaplot involving the people responsible for sending Luci to corrupt Bean, though it’s unclear why it’s important to sway a princess who isn’t even in line for the throne of her bankrupt kingdom. Also, King Zog wants to use Elfo’s magic blood to achieve immortality and rule forever, a goal that would be scarier if he was more than a hot-tempered grouch regularly narrating his actions like Family Guy’s parody of Randy Newman. Most episodes begin and end with characters in the same place, their past adventures quickly forgotten.
In “Princess of Darkness,” one of the better episodes, Elfo and Bean rescue Luci from a demon hunter, but they inadvertently release a bunch of other demons in the process — a mistake that, so far, seems to have had no consequences. In “Swamp and Circumstance,” they start a war with a neighboring kingdom, which isn’t mentioned at all in the following episode, “Love’s Tender Rampage,” which is devoted to Elfo inventing a girlfriend to hide his feelings for Bean. The cliché joke is made even worse by the fact that Elfo actually was in a relationship with another elf before he left home. Bringing her up could have given the show an opportunity to look back at the world he left behind and ask whether he’s happy with the choice. But the writers seem to have no memory, even for events just a few episodes back.
That’s particularly disappointing by comparison to BoJack Horseman, which has found room for both ridiculous standalone episodes and a rich plot that has grown progressively more mature across the seasons. BoJack’s world, populated equally by humans and anthropomorphic animals, provides nearly endless ammunition for quick visual gags and extended jokes, used to lighten scripts often devoted to depression, substance abuse, and failing relationships. A world filled with fairies, gnomes, and wizards has the potential to be just as entertaining as one with Navy SEALs who are also seals. Groening hints at a desire to follow the example of BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and delve into darker territory, like the sexist system that so badly limits Bean’s options. Instead, the show sticks to safer hints at adult themes, like the princess’s attempts to get laid constantly failing because guys are afraid of her father, the king.
Netflix’s Big Mouth is an even better parallel to Disenchantment since both are fundamentally coming-of-age stories, and again, the new show comes up short by comparison. Like Bean, Big Mouth’s young protagonists are pursued by creatures encouraging them to give in to their impulses. Luci is the source of some great gags. He’s perpetually mistaken for a talking cat as he shuffles around manipulating Bean and anyone else foolish enough to listen to him, but he feels like a pale imitation of Big Mouth’s Maurice the Hormone Monster and Connie the Hormone Monstress. The duo is just far better developed as expressions of puberty, encouraging the characters they haunt to masturbate, yell at their parents, and jump in and out of relationships.
Big Mouth occasionally leans too heavily on absurdist humor, and some of its gags and characters regularly fall flat, but the writers take much bigger risks than Groening does in Disenchantment. The episode “I Survived Jesse’s Bat Mitzvah” features a fantastic musical number where the characters all sing about a season’s worth of emotional baggage, including a first love flaming out and Jesse realizing her mom is having a lesbian affair with her rabbi. The episode “Am I Gay?” ends with the questioning character accepting that sexual preference is a spectrum, not a binary state. There are plenty of easy dick jokes in Big Mouth, but the more nuanced exploration of the trials of adolescence are what make the show great.
And the lack of anything as unfamiliar or daring is what holds Disenchantment back. Fantasy is often a genre about adventurers whose dangerous pursuits force them to leave the safety of home and often the safety of childhood. Disenchantment follows those tropes, but without leaving its own form of well-worn comedy safety. Groening could stand to learn from his fellow Netflix animators and find the courage to edge further out into untested territory. Otherwise, the series will continue to feel stuck in the past and not nearly magical enough.