Matt Groening’s legacy is ensured by “The Simpsons” alone, and — for better and worse — his trifecta of animated creations can be defined by their relation to the landmark Fox comedy. “The Simpsons” is set in the ever-developing present day; the years pass by in line with the real world yet Maggie is still a toddler despite being old enough to rent a car. “Futurama” launched into the wild world of 2999 with witty asides exploring how the future could be defined by — or at least joked about — based on the events of today.
So it’s a bit strange, and regrettably indicative of the choppy quality, that Groening’s first foray into storytelling’s future is set in the past. “Disenchantment,” the new medieval fantasy series on Netflix, is familiar for many reasons, but whether it’s your first Groening series or one of many, the jokes are stale, their set-ups are mundane, the plot is predictable, the execution is rarely inspired. Through seven episodes — the only episodes provided to critics in advance — “Disenchantment” is one dud of a potion.
…which makes the turn in Episode 8 all the more surprising. By embracing the serialized elements of his new story, Groening suddenly instills high stakes and emotional resonance to give life to a sagging saga. Within those final 90 minutes, “Disenchantment” feels as big as a series set in Dreamland should — not to mention one with Groening’s pedigree behind it.
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For those who have yet to watch, “Disenchantment” follows a princess, an elf, and a demon; a ragtag trio trying to find their purpose amid the crumbling kingdom of Dreamland. The princess, nicknamed Bean, isn’t like your typical fare maiden from a fairy tale. She’s a rebellious teenager raised by a single parent whose favorite food is beer. That she’s King Zog’s (John DiMaggio) oldest offspring only complicates the responsibility forced on a prototypical slacker, torn between a child’s life of leisure and accepting the responsibilities of being an adult. You know, a classic teen.
In the first episode, she meets her formative friends, which despite their peculiar backgrounds fall into a pretty traditional dynamic. Bean is the conflicted protagonist, torn between two paths to adulthood; Elfo (voiced by Nat Faxon) is an elf, but really he’s the angel on her shoulder encouraging her responsible decisions (while also doubling as her love interest, because there’s gotta be a love interest); and Luci (Eric Andre) is a demon, so he’s the devil on Bean’s other shoulder and still the literal spawn of Satan when she’s not around.
Over the first seven episodes, they get into a series of misadventures that don’t really lead anywhere. Bean has a party when her dad leaves the castle. Bean apprentices for an executioner. Bean joins a group of thieves. Though all related to steadying Bean’s spinning moral compass, the episodes don’t clearly stablize the gauge; even halfway through the season, viewers won’t really know whether Bean is good, bad, or just a normal teen pushing her personal boundaries as far as they’ll go.
Her companions’ journeys are too stunted, as well. Elfo is introduced as a wide-eyed fellow who wants to see the world; he’s trapped in an ostensibly happy elfdom, but that’s not how Elfo sees it. “Singing while you work isn’t happiness — it’s mental illness,” Elfo says before leaving his homeland for good. In Dreamland, he wants to find misery (in order to better appreciate life), but that intriguing concept is barely explored. Elfo is funny for his voice (a love-it-or-hate-it choice by Faxon) and unshakable optimism, but his arc is defined by hiding his crush on Bean.
Luci has far more going on, both visually and internally. Unlike Elfo — who looks like an elf version of Bart Simpson — Luci stands out from the rest of Dreamland’s characters. And he should, considering he’s not really part of that world. Even though Luci passes as a cat to those outside the trio, his amorphous shape can appear two-dimensional depending on how closely you look at the all-black demon. This alluring visual combined with Andre’s voice, as well as an “Evil and loving it!” attitude, make Luci pop, even though his mission to ruin Bean’s life is often counteractively contorted to help her out. Making him a secret good guy inhibits Luci’s ability to grow, and there are far more imaginative uses for his spirit-like body than what’s seen in Season 1, but he’s still the favorite of the lot because he’s strange, a little unpredictable, and (pardon the pun) devilishly charming.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains spoilers for “Disenchantment” Season 1, including the ending. Skip to the last graph to avoid plot details.]
If anything, Luci represents what “Disenchantment” should be chasing: a fresh idea with loads of potential, and what happens in the end — over the last three episodes to be precise — gives hope future seasons might do just that. Not only does Groening lean into his serialized storytelling to create actual narrative momentum, but episodes add things like stakes and consequences that stand in stark contrast to what came before.
Look at Episode 2: Even though the pilot ends with all three leads falling off a cliff to their doom, the subsequent entry shows them landing on a horse and surviving, unscathed. That’s all well and good for a slapstick comedy, but it abandons the suspense built up to end the previous episode. Everyone is going to be fine, so why worry?
Well, Episode 9 gives viewers a good reason to be nervous. Elfo dies — and he stays dead. After catching a stray arrow from the king’s men, the little elf (well, half-elf) is still gone at the end of Season 1. But even though it feels like he could come back through some magic or what not in Season 2, his death is used to push characters toward important decisions. For one, it forces Bean to confront how she felt about Elfo, after knowing he had romantic feelings for her. But more importantly it pushes her away from her dad and into the arms of her revived mom.
The last that viewers see of Bean, she’s fleeing the kingdom with Queen Dagmar because she’s still angry with her father. She doesn’t know her mom just froze the entire population of Dreamland in stone — Bean thinks her stepmom did it out of vengeance for being replaced — or that her dad (with a little help from Luci) knows Dagmar’s evil plan, which has something to do with dormant powers, “a dark battle,” and Bean’s “destiny.”
There’s suddenly significance to the plot and an intriguing mythos built for the series, all in about one-fifth of the season. In the last three episodes, “Disenchantment” embraces its story in a way that makes for easy viewing — there’s still nothing revolutionary here, and much of the comedy is still too stagnant, but it’s a far more effective fairy tale. Groening’s first Netflix original isn’t spinning its wheels in the dungeon anymore; it’s riding out into a bigger world, and discovering more unexplored territory is just what the series needs, be it more serialized storytelling or just a deeper investment in characters than can fit in half-hour blocks.
If the angel is tugging you toward the safety of the past, maybe listen to the demon for a bit and see what a scary future looks like.
“Disenchantment” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.