There is an immediate sense of familiarity within the first few moments of Netflix’s Disenchantment. It’s somewhat comforting. After all, the new animated series hails from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, and you can see aspects of both shows throughout. Simplistically, you can describe Disenchantment as Futurama but with fantasy in lieu of sci-fi; or if you squint, you can say the main character vaguely resembles a bootleg Bart Simpson. And just like those two shows, Disenchantment has a shaky beginning that hints at promise — but this time around, it might be buried under too much mediocrity.
Developed with Simpsons veteran Josh Weinstein, Disenchantment (which premieres Friday) takes place in a past medieval kingdom and quickly introduces us to our heroine Bean, a rebellious princess whose favorite book is “the hollowed out one with the booze inside.” Bean’s father, King Zog (John DiMaggio), is set on marrying her off in order to form a political alliance but, like so many other rebellious princesses before her, Bean isn’t too keen on the idea. From there, Disenchantment introduces the other two big players: Elfo (Nat Faxon), an elf who leaves his utopian and perpetually-happy forest because he’s seeking a more human world “where people are miserable,” and Luci (Eric Andre), Bean’s “personal demon” given to her as a wedding gift, who is frequently confused for a cat (which are, of course, personal demons in their own way). “Get used to it,” he informs her, “because you are stuck with me for all of eternity.”
Luci is mostly around to encourage Bean to do the wrong thing (although it never takes much convincing) to further push the three into weird little adventures that are often fun and inventive, even if they don’t go anywhere. Elfo is around to, well, kind of just pine after Bean and occasionally interject some humanity into the episodes. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much going on under the surface to propel any of them. (Even the brief hints to a greater story about Luci are few and far between, not adding much.) And, unfortunately, none of them are developed enough for this to be just a fun and casual animated show where viewers are content to go along with the shenanigans.
Some of the issues are due to the lightly serialized nature of the show, which feels lacking, but there’s also the absence of any push-and-pull between the characters. Much of the time, there doesn’t seem to be a point to Luci (although Eric Andre is doing fantastic voice work, as is the rest of the cast) because he doesn’t exactly have to work hard to convince Bean to do something dumb or evil. The slightly-longer runtime doesn’t work in Groening’s favor either (the pilot runs 35 minutes but doesn’t need to; the rest of the episodes are thankfully shorter).
Then there’s Bean — a “no-good drunken disgrace” — who, on paper, seems poised to be a good anti-heroine. She’s a princess who is generally bad at everything and uncomfortable with her own royalty. She wants to get wasted, throw parties, and kiss boys who are scared to interact with her. At one point she muses that it should be “easier” to decide whether she wants to get married or fall to her death. But Disenchantment, at least in the first seven episodes screened, isn’t quite sure how to write her — or how to interrogate the inherent tropes relating to women-in-the-fantasy-genre. And sure, the series doesn’t have to do that, but it certainly feels like that is, deep down, one of its aims.
As for the actual humor, Disenchantment is often hit-or-miss (commonplace for the first few episodes of a sitcom), and more Monty Python than Futurama. There are plenty of the usual sight gags and punny wordplay ranging from groan-worthy to delightfully silly. There’s a bit more cartoonish violence than one would expect — particularly because it’s not always funny — and occasionally the jokes elicit nothing more than an “OK, we get it” response. But there are plenty of fun, laugh-out-loud moments as the series goes on which makes it easy to imagine that, by the next batch of episodes (Netflix ordered 20 episodes, 10 are released at once), Disenchantment will have more confidence and steadier footing. It’s also worth mentioning that much of the cast (including a lot of familiar voices) is pretty stellar, injecting liveliness in lines that would otherwise fall flat.
Fair or not, Disenchantment has a lot to live up to — not just Groening’s resume but the larger world of intricately-plotted animated sitcoms with weighty emotional depth like BoJack Horseman and Steven Universe. It’s getting harder and harder for shows to make themselves stand out nowadays, especially when things start out a little confused and murky. In an early episode, Bean ponders, “Isn’t there a point in everyone’s life when they need to like, go and figure out who they are?” Hopefully, Disenchantment will take the time to figure itself out, too.