The Simpsons is one of television’s greatest comedies (as well as its longest-running), and Futurama remains a beloved cult series with a following dedicated enough to get it revived from cancellation. Yet neither of Matt Groening’s animated triumphs were deemed a classic from the start. In both cases, the key to developing their signature humor was time—to cultivate characters’ personalities and relationships; to establish and expand their unique milieus; and to identify and nurture a distinctive atmosphere and attitude. Only after that creative baseline was in place, replete with fully-formed protagonists and a panoply of peripheral players, did those shows truly thrive, since such groundwork allowed them to then have unbridled absurdist fun playing to—or against—their strengths.
All of which is to say that anyone expecting Disenchantment to be phenomenal right out of the gate is probably suppressing memories of the maiden seasons of The Simpsons and Futurama, when laughs were less consistent simply because those series were still finding their voice and constructing their expansive worlds. Nonetheless, as far as early efforts go, Groening’s third small-screen endeavor, whose debut ten-episode run arrives on Netflix August 17, is routinely entertaining. A saga set in a swords-and-sorcery universe based on the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, it boasts the hallmarks of its creator’s prior work while traversing familiar—and fertile—fantasy terrain.
And fortunately, it gets funnier as it goes along.
Led by a terrific vocal cast that includes many Groening favorites, Disenchantment (co-developed by Josh Weinstein) is set in the medieval kingdom of Dreamland, which is ruled by King Zog (Billy West), a stout, bearded megalomaniac who speaks in a thick New Yawk accent. Zog is determined to cement a bond with a neighboring kingdom—because Dreamland is running out of money, fast—by marrying off his daughter Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson). The thing is, the white-haired, buck-toothed Bean is a drunken rebellious teen who’s in her element swindling gamblers out of their gold, drinking until the taverns close, and passing out in the street. And if, during that carousing, she can find a brave man willing to give her some nookie (no matter her father’s wrath), well then, all the better.
At every turn, Bean is beset by misogynistic power structures that demand she do as she’s told—which, in turn, drives her to fight back, and to pine for a life filled with true happiness. That makes her the opposite of Elfo (Nat Faxon), a scrawny green-faced elf living in a Keebler-inspired community of cheery sweet-tooths who spend their days singing joyfully as they man their candy assembly lines. A non-conformist at heart, Elfo wants to break free from this jolly prison. After escaping a hanging at a gumdrop tree, he winds up crashing Bean’s nuptials to haughty Prince Merkimer (Matt Berry), and immediately becomes coveted by Zog for his supposed magical blood. Attempts to catch Elfo soon throw the ceremony into disarray, thus providing an opportunity for Bean to evade matrimony—by going on the run with Elfo and, also, a diminutive black creature of mysterious origins.
That would be Luci (Eric Andre), a tiny demon who emerges out of a gift-wrapped wedding present and soon becomes the third member of Disenchantment’s primary trio. Sent by two enigmatic figures keeping tabs on Bean from afar, Luci is a wisecracking mischief-maker whose every piece of advice is evil. He’s the devil on Bean’s shoulder, and his inappropriate meanness generates much of the material’s wittiness. Often mistaken for a cat, the troublesome one-eyed Luci is the show’s immediate breakout star, despite the inescapable fact that, for now, he’s not all that different from Bender (e.g. he even has a smoking habit).
Echoes of Futurama are elsewhere as well, most notably in Elfo’s not-so-secretive crush on uninterested Bean, which is modeled a bit too closely on the dynamic shared by Fry and Leela. In addition, Merkimer is a full-of-himself macho man in the vein of Zapp Brannigan, although his transformative fate bodes well for his long-term comedic potential. Meanwhile, Bean herself exhibits shades of Homer Simpson, both in her fondness for imbibing to the point of imbecility, and in her habit of losing her clothes (generally at inopportune moments). The difference is, Bean acts out for a reason—namely, because she exists in a society that devalues her as a second-class citizen, much to her constant frustration and fury.
As one might expect from Groening, Disenchantment is full of ridiculous sight gags and wordplay (often via business’ marquee signs), and it pokes fun at genre conventions without being inside baseball-y to the point of alienating viewers who don’t LARP on weekends. It also indulges in a few less-than-delicate stereotypes, which come to the fore in episode six (“Swamp and Circumstance”) thanks to clunky Cajun- and Asian-esque antagonists. In light of The Simpsons’ ongoing Apu issue, that installment sticks out like a sore thumb.
Mercifully, however, such tactics are otherwise kept to a minimum, as the focus is on the interpersonal rapport shared by Bean, Elfo and Luci. Better still, after opening with two serialized-storytelling chapters, the show settles down into more of a traditional stand-alone episode format, which allows for greater flights of lunatic fancy—as well as scenarios well-suited to take humorous advantage of its characters’ peculiarities.
Disenchantment really hits its stride with a seventh segment (“Love’s Tender Rampage”) that features not only a stellar Simpsons-style hallucinatory freak-out, but a measure of confidence—and craziness—that comes from having gotten introductions out of the way. As Elfo struggles to mask his true feelings for Bean by perpetrating a made-up-girlfriend ruse that, predictably, goes awry, Groening’s trademark blend of spiraling-out-of-control loopiness and underlying sweetness comes to the fore. Moreover, the episode illustrates his gift for large ensemble comedy, with scenes bouncing this way and that between idiosyncratic figures—be it a giant one-eyed ogre, Bean’s strangely unhinged maid Bunty (Lucy Montgomery) or Zog’s slithering second wife Queen Oona (Tress MacNeille)—who each exude their own special sort of weirdness. The jury may still be out about whether the show can reach its ancestors’ lofty heights, but at least so far, Groening and company’s latest has a solid fantastical foundation upon which to build.