I think by now it should be pretty clear that I’m a big fan of the animated shows create by Matt Groening. I spent a staggering amount of my life watching and discussing every single episode of the Simpsons, and despite the serious ebbs and flows of quality over the show’s near thirty years of operation, I still consider it one of my favorite television shows of all time. Likewise, Futurama is an absolute masterpiece of a show, and one that doesn’t suffer from decades of questionable quality like its predecessor. Groening himself obviously hasn’t had a major hand in every episode of these shows, but it’s hard to deny the fact that the man has a good batting average when it comes to animated shenanigans. So, you can image my excitement when I learned that Groening was bringing another show to life, this time skipping Fox’s complicated working relationship to give Netflix a shot. And, to sweeten the deal, he was reuniting with most of the principal voice-cast and creative team of Futurama! It seemed like a sure bet, especially when we learned that they were doing something different this time, and creating a show set in a fantastical medieval work, full of all sorts of fantasy creatures. It seemed like a pretty solid idea, a perfect storm of fun ideas. Which makes it a shame that overall this first season of Disenchantment was a very mixed bag. But, it’s an interesting mixed bag that has the potential to be something fun in the future. Which doesn’t really help us in the present.
Disenchantment takes place in a fantasy world and follows the exploits of princess Tiabeanie of Dreamland, also known as Bean. She’s a hard-living, rebellious young woman who is far more interested in going out to the village and getting drunk than following through with her courtly duties. Which are basically just to get married and fortify political unions. Her life has been quite episodic up until this point, just disobeying her father King Zog and doing whatever she can to escape what little responsibility she’s been given in life. When the series begins she’s preparing for a doomed marriage with a prince from an allied kingdom, and is rescued by an accidental murder and the appearance of two friends. The first is Elfo, an elf who has decided to leave his own land and people behind to find a world where people aren’t forced into soul-crushing positivity and can embrace the unhappiness of life. And the second is Luci, a demon who has been sent to destroy Bean’s life by a shadowy cabal of evil people, but who instead takes a shine to Bean’s self-destructive nature and instead just stick around to become her drinking buddy. Bean ends up ruining two different marriages, causing King Zog to just accept the fact that Bean’s just going to lead the life she wants to. It also helps that elf blood apparently holds the secret to immortality, so Zog is perfectly fine with Elfo hanging out, giving them ample resources to experiment on.
Once the show sets itself up, it then becomes a fairly episodic series, finding new adventures for the three drinking buddies to get up to, until slowly establishing a more over-arching narrative that really becomes different from anything we’ve ever seen from a Groening created series. Throughout the season we check in on King Zog’s quest to create some sort of elixir of life out of Elfo’s blood. It’s mainly treated as a gag, just something to check in on ever now and then, but slowly it become apparent that there’s actually something going on with this. And then the last two episodes arrive, and the show becomes something very different. We learn that Bean’s mother died when she was very young, but in actuality she was turned to stone, and now serves as her own memorial. Zog hasn’t been trying to find the secret to immortality to save himself, he’s been trying to bring his wife back to life. Bean then does everything in her power to make his dream come true, and bring her mother back from the dead, and is rewarded with a revived mother. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a good thing, because it turns out that her mother may have been a bit of an evil witch, and things promptly go to hell, before ending on some serious cliff hangers, completely restructuring the entire show, and leaving the viewer caught off guard about what the next season could possibly be.
In some ways, Disenchantment was a bit of a letdown. I enjoyed the show, and I’ll certainly be coming back for a second season, but there was just something about it that felt very off to me. And, after thinking about it for several days, I think that the main reason for that was the fact that the show was trying to be something it wasn’t. I really liked the fact that Groening and crew were branching out and telling a far more over-arching story than they’ve ever done before, bowing down to the confines of the new binge-friendly model of television writing. And, when the show tried to branch out like that I think it paid off. There were some wonderfully emotional moments in the show, including what I legitimately think is John DiMaggio’s finest voice-work, and the way that the show is playing with its own sense of narrative really worked. But, on the more mico side of things, I think my biggest problem was that the show often just wasn’t funny. Which is strange, because the Simpsons and Futurama are two foundational shows that really forged my sense of humor, and this show is littered with the creative talent behind them. Honestly, I think the issue was just that they were trying to be something they weren’t. The show got rid of what few restrictions the previous two shows had, and it seemed like they felt pressured to make a show that was raunchier than the Simpsons or Futurama ever got, falling more in line with stuff like BoJack Horseman or Big Mouth, and it just didn’t feel right. When things got down to the basics, using the joke formats that they seem more comfortable with, the show succeeded, but whenever they tried to get a little more ribald it felt like a swing and a miss. But, those quibbles weren’t really enough to sink the show. The animation was fun, the principle voice cast really did a great job with their characters, the score from Mark Mothersbaugh was absolutely wonderful, and the show really got me interested in what’s going to happen next.
But, oddly enough, the thing that I couldn’t get out of my mind while watching this show is probably the weirdest takeaway I possibly could have had. Now, I talk about a lot of dumb things on this site. It’s basically all it’s good for. But I’m about to share with you what has the potential to be the dumbest take I’ve ever had in the history of Puzzled Pagan Presents.
This show expressed the strange way that entitlement plays in a young woman’s life far better than any of the Noah Baumbach movies I’ve ever seen. Yeah, it’s a really left-field take, but several times over the course of this show I sat back and realized that it was playing with similar themes to stuff like Frances Ha or Mistress America, but in a way that didn’t irritate the hell out of me. I’ve talked about this before on the site, primarily in my somewhat confusing article on Lady Bird, but the films of Noah Baumbach have never connected for me, and as a big movie dork that’s always confused me. The movies always get massive amounts of praise, but every time I watch them I just get incredibly irritated with every character. I think the films are trying to be critical of these characters, people who have been given everything in their lives but are still wanting more, but there’s just something about them that have rubbed me the wrong way every single time. And, that’s kind of Bean’s story. She’s literally a princess, and all she does is complain about her life while wishing she could do absolutely whatever she wanted, instead of just mostly whatever she wants. And yet, there was something about Bean’s story that you could connect with. Yes, she’s incredibly entitled, but the show manages to make a better case for why she should feel unhappy about that. She really does seem to want some struggle in her life, something that will give her some sort of purpose. She actively seeks out a more meaningful role in her own life, and when that role arrives she throws herself into it. She takes chances, makes mistakes, and learns. She’s struggling to figure out who she is, and is certainly going about that in an obnoxious way, but there’s just something infinity more charming about Bean’s struggles with entitlement.
Disenchantment was created by Matt Groening, 2018.
Categories: Couch Potato