Review: Disenchantment Part One

I watched Disenchantment over the weekend. Ten roughly half-hour episodes spaced over a couple days didn’t quite feel like a “binge.” So it’s easy to digest, and not a huge time commitment. With that in mind, I can safely recommend it. But so far, ten episodes in, it’s mostly just OK.

For those who are unaware: Disenchantment is the new Netflix-original series from Matt Groening. It has justly drawn ample comparison to Groening’s Futurama: it’s of course an animated parody of a particular type of genre fiction; the character models are similar; there’s a fair amount of cartoonish violence; many of the voice actors are Groening veterans; and the core cast is familiarly divided between a reckless warrior-woman leader (Princess Bean, who wants purpose and meaning beyond being married off in a political alliance), an ignorant and lovelorn dope (Elfo the Elf, whose purpose on leaving his tightly regulated society quickly becomes earning Bean’s affections), and a Bad Influence. The Bad Influence in this show–the demon Luci–is perhaps the most different, in a subtle but important way: where Bender typically was willing to show fondness for friends but could sacrifice them at a moment’s notice, Luci is more adamant that he despises everyone and is explicitly there to corrupt them but regularly goes out of his way to save his new pals. By the end of the first season, there’s even some evidence that he might be overriding his prime directive as a dark influencer bonded to Bean, but that’s about all I can say without major spoilers. In other words, while he starts off cruel and malevolent, he often reminds me of ultimately benevolent bonded spirits like Mushu in Mulan or Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Despite the simultaneous release of the ten episodes, Disenchantment nonetheless feels like a show that was attempting to find itself and adapt to an audience throughout its run. For the first seven episodes, the show refuses to commit itself to serialized or episodic storytelling; there’s a broad background story, and events in earlier episodes typically inform future events, but death doesn’t seem to stick, and some events (like a renewed war mid-season) just get reset to the baseline level for narrative convenience after the fact without any acknowledgment of how or why things were reset. Disenchantment is prepared to laugh in the face of any such criticism, or any attempt to really unspool its continuity; in the episode “Castle Party Massacre,” a city-dweller challenges a newly arrived “land viking” by complaining, “Well, I’m sorry; things get confusing in a world with occasional magic and curses, and while I am a fan of such worlds, I just feel some more clearly set-out rules for what can and cannot happen would help–,” but he is unable to finish the thought because the land viking has already killed him.

It’s cute and cheeky, the backgrounds are beautiful and detailed, the voice acting is consistently good, and there are a lot of fun background gags and references to medieval fantasy stories, but the show challenges any effort to take it too seriously or to expect consistency. Despite this, the final three episodes radically shift to a grand dramatic narrative that ends with several mysteries, some surprises, and virtually every character in shockingly different circumstances. Despite the collossal stakes, I found myself intrigued but not invested, and I think that comes down to the light absurdity and casual tone of the bulk of the season as well as the comically broad interaction between the primary characters. They were all selfish and spoiled in a world full of horrors for most; I just couldn’t care about their petty complaints, even though I laughed at many of the jokes and generally enjoyed the stories being told. Even the central will-they-won’t-they romance between Bean and Elfo was too forced (and commented on directly as a joke), and I couldn’t see why these two characters without any chemistry or common ground should be together at all, especially since the romantic feelings appear to be entirely one-sided except for when Bean is seeking attention or intoxicated. Then there’s my usual complaint about serial fantasy installments: the opening arcs typically feel like unnecessary prologues. Here, there’s very little needed world-building, so it feels especially pointless. If the phrase “medieval fantasy” means anything at all to you, you already know enough to understand the tired tropes that get parodied, occasionally subverted, and often used seemingly without irony in the show. I’m more excited about what Disenchantment promises to be in the future, but it wasted so much time to get there.

While watching ten half-hour episodes isn’t the biggest television commitment out there, you could probably get away with watching the first episode and then the last three without missing anything vital.