Saturday, 9 November 2019

Disenchantment: Season 1 (Part 1)

Bean is a princess, the daughter of King Zøg of Dreamland. However, she is more interested in drinking and partying than diplomacy and lessons. Her fortunes change when meets Elfo, an elf from the forest whose blood may hold the key to a secret mission of her father's, and Luci, a demon from hell who inexplicably decides to attach himself to her destiny. The three get into various adventures as Bean tries (and mostly fails) to grow as a person.

Disenchantment is the third major animated comedy series from American writer-artist Matt Groening, following on from The Simpsons (1989-present) and Futurama (1999-2013). It marks his first work for Netflix and his first TV work away from Fox.

As a result of this, the show arrived with a great deal of expectation: could Groening do for fantasy what The Simpsons had done for suburbia and Futurama for science fiction? (i.e. have several excellent seasons and then slowly grind out numerous seasons of increasingly declining tedium) The answer is maybe. It's easy to forget that The Simpsons took a good one to two seasons to get really good and Futurama was wildly inconsistent for its early run, and Disenchantment definitely follows the same pattern.

Disenchantment's biggest problem is that it isn't very funny. Groening's earlier shows used their genres to poke fun at tropes and cliches and everyday facets of life, but Disenchantment doesn't do that as successfully. The occasional gag does land but there are many more misfires: Elfo's unrequited love for Bean is drained of every hint of possible pathos and emotion and becomes seriously annoying very quickly. Rewatching Futurama, it's interesting that Fry's love for Leela does not become a major plot point until several seasons into the show, and after Leela has already shown some affection back to him (just doubting that he'd make a reliable long-term partner), so that storyline was better-handled.

The worldbuilding is also a bit sketchy: Disenchantment takes place in a pretty standard fantasy world with knights and wizards and various monsters. There are some original flourishes, like the race of intelligent amphibians from Dankmire who are allied to Dreamland through marriage, but these are mostly left underdeveloped.

For a full six episodes, the show flounders on, trying to mine some humour from the apparently revelatory fact Bean is a girl who likes getting drunk (gasp!) and Elfo fancies Bean, which is funny because he's a little green guy! The eyes start glazing over, but occasional strong moments do break through, such as Zøg (a great vocal performance by Groening regular John DiMaggio, Bender himself) turning out to be less of a blustering oaf than he first appears - even occasionally risking pathos - and a scene-stealing turn by the immortally brilliant Matt Berry and his fine-tuned vocal gesticulations as a talking pig.

Just as Disenchantment reaches the point where you may feel like abandoning it, the show does unexpectedly level up. The last three episodes of the series form a continuous epic story full of family betrayal, some decent plot twists and a few good laughs, helped by Matt Berry's return as a semi-regular (which continues into Season 2). It doesn't completely undo the damage done by the less-compelling opening episodes, but it does at least become more watchable.

Disenchantment (***) still isn't a very funny comedy, but it turns out it can be a half-effective, lighthearted character drama when it puts its mind to it. The question is if viewers can put up with the weak opening set of episodes and the lack of laughs to make it to the point where the show does start getting better. It is available worldwide on Netflix now.

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