Having already sent up the nuclear family and science fiction, Matt Groening turns his eye to medieval times for his first Netflix series, Disenchantment. The Simpsons and Futurama creator reunites with Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley for this fantasy parody, which could be described as “Game Of Thrones as recapped by Homer Simpson” (we know, “The Serfsons” did it already). It’s a fitfully entertaining yarn, one that gets entangled in overlong episodes, a meandering plot, and an existential crisis that mirrors that of its main protagonist. But the game voice cast—which includes several Futurama regulars—helps keep this genre-skewering adventure on course.
At the center of several plots ranging in diabolicalness is Princess Tiabeanie (Abbi Jacobson), the rebellious teenage daughter of King Zog (John DiMaggio). She prefers to go by Bean, just as she’d rather drink, fight, and fu—er, woo the men of Dreamland (the shift to Netflix hasn’t meant a complete departure from network standards and practices) than be married off to whatever inbred prince her boorish father has lined up at the altar. Like so many animated princesses before her, Bean dreams of a life beyond the castle walls. Her DNA is more Simpson than Disney—she belches instead of sings, and sports the signature overbite of virtually all of Groening’s creations—but Bean is also more than just a medieval Lisa or Leela. She’s the first female character to truly lead one of Groening’s series, and Disenchantment is (mostly) her coming-of-age story.
This arc stands to benefit the most from the serialization Weinstein touted at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, but Disenchantment doesn’t find a teenaged girl’s aspirations epic enough. So Bean’s story is mirrored by that of Elfo (Nat Faxon), a dissatisfied sprite who leaves his deceptively cheery woodland home in search of new experiences. They meet on one of her wedding days, just hours after Bean’s been saddled with a teeny demon. Voiced by Eric Andre, Luci is part of some fiendish scheme that’s introduced early on, then mostly abandoned in favor of bits about hilltop mystics, a Viking invasion-slash-kegger, and King Zog’s quest for eternal youth. These detours have their moments, but they run counter to the serialization intent—which wouldn’t be such an issue if Disenchantment were as strong in its stand-alone episodes as its animated predecessors. But though there are several inspired visual and recurring gags, most of these segues aren’t quite outlandish enough for the medieval-fantasy setting, let alone Groening and Weinstein’s new streaming home, where a horseman has come to represent our human hopes and despair. As one Dreamland inhabitant notes, this is a land of magic and nightmarish creatures, so jokes about a secret society that’s really just a sex cult simply aren’t that fantastic.
After a great introductory episode and mini-arc, the animated sitcom settles into a Futurama-like rhythm, with Dreamland serving as the base of operations for Bean, Luci, and Elfo, who set off on diplomatic missions and drunken exploits alike (usually at the same time). There’s even an anachronistic analog for Zapp Brannigan in Prince Merkemer (The Mighty Boosh’s Matt Berry). Again, all fine and good for an adventure-of-the-week format, but Disenchantment aims to spin a grander tapestry from Bean’s rebellion. And with writers like Gravity Falls’ Shion Takeuchi and Superstore’s Jeny Batten, the show does occasionally explore how oppressive prescribed gender roles can be, especially for teenage girls, something the producers have claimed is one of the show’s goals. There’s a great throwaway line from Zog about how Bean “failed as a princess and a nun,” which are the “only two girl things [he knows].” But despite her father’s scrutiny, Bean becomes a jewel thief, an executioner (under Noel Fielding’s surprisingly gentle tutelage), and an ambassador, proving she’s capable of so much more than being married to a dullard or the god that’s being whipped up on the fly by a druid voiced by Tress MacNeille.
Likewise, Elfo refuses to take his place in an assembly line, questioning how happiness can be anyone’s default mode. But Disenchantment sells the elf short by replacing his ennui with a burgeoning love for Bean, because its narrative discrepancies don’t discriminate. Luci’s storyline is the most consistent—as the demonic fly in the ointment, his role is simply to disrupt. Yet the hell spawn still finds himself growing attached to the very person he’s been assigned to torment, as well as grudgingly tolerate Elfo.
Although Disenchantment struggles to balance its episodic and serialized storytelling in the first seven episodes, it’s already found alchemy in its cast. Jacobson—who regularly flouts convention on her groundbreaking series, Broad City—imbues her performance with equal parts optimism and fatalism. As a young woman in what amounts to Europe in the Middle Ages, it’s too early in the history of the world for her to give up, and yet her fate already seems to be sealed. Faxon and Andre are also cut out for their roles as ingenue and incubus, the former veering from cheerful to vengeful when the situation warrants it, as the latter’s dulcet tones make the most heinous actions sound downright reasonable. Despite some snarls, we do find ourselves caring and rooting for this defiant teen, wayward elf, and conflicted demon, and it’s thanks in great part to the cast. Disenchantment has the potential to become as engrossing an updated fairy tale as it is a debauched one, without choosing between one-offs and longer arcs. And with such an excellent trio leading the way, it won’t even need to resort to magic.