Matt Groening is responsible for creating two of the greatest animated shows in television history. The Simpsons, I think, had a hand in shaping every single American Millennial’s sense of humor whether they knew it or not, and though Futurama didn’t make as large a splash in the culture as its predecessor, its consistent critical success with over 100+ episodes to boot helped solidify both it and The Simpsons as animated juggernauts. They led the way for popular adult animated shows like Family Guy, King of the Hill, and South Park at the turn of the century, and today we see the genre take even further leaps and bounds with titles like BoJack Horseman, Rick & Morty, and Bob’s Burgers.
Groening’s latest project, Disenchantment, has found its home with Netflix. This is a new format for Groening and, well, it shows. Without making excuses for him, the streaming format is a different beast altogether than serial, week-to-week shows. First off, a typical Simpsons episode comes in at 22 minutes when you include commercials in a given time slot. This (obviously) nails in a structure and dramatic format that isn’t necessary for something like Disenchantment. And though it can still follow your basic sitcom structure, it now has a full 8 minutes of material to fiddle with. This can be a double-edge sword for any creator. If the first episode of Disenchantment is any indication of how this “serialized fantasy satire” will play out though, it looks like it’s going to be a bit of an uncomfortable transition.
Let’s talk about the show.
Episode 1 entitled: “A Princess, an Elf, and a Demon Walk Into a Bar” starts us off on the morning of princess Bean (Abbie Jacobson)’s wedding. But she doesn’t want to get married, she’d rather gamble and drink. She is, after all, about to enter into a loveless marriage that only exists as a way to ally her kingdom, Dreamland, to neighboring Bentwood. It’s a fine way to introduce her, though it’s not a particularly edgy thing to point out that forced betrothals can be oppressive.
Then Beans opens up a strange wedding gift that seems to be calling to her. The gift is a Demon named Luci (Eric Andre). Luci has been sent by some nameless cultists, whose motivations are unclear, but whose cutscenes are some of the more entertaining parts of the episode. So Luci’s purpose as a character is to cause havoc in Bean’s life as sort of a “bad conscience”. I find Luci to be the most interesting and enjoyable part of Disenchantment, the animation, the voice work of the actor, and the immoral perspective of Luci are all positive things worth investing in with a show like this. Unfortunately though, Luci has very little of value to add in the first episode other than a few pithy one-liners.
But Then There’s Elfo…
Elfo the elf (clever) is also in a place he doesn’t want to be. He’s in Elfwood, where happiness is just a synonym for stupid, apparently, and all the elves are simply named after their job, or a thing that they do (shocko, kissy). But then why is he called Elfo? He works at the assembly line, shouldn’t he be called “Assemblo”? Why is he so special that his name represents his entire race? I’d like to say I’m putting way too much thought into this, but that’s kind of a problem isn’t it? One of your main character’s origins is just one lame gag, and it’s a gag that offers nothing of value to the story. Take a look at this dialogue from when Elfo decides to leave his home.
Elf King: Elfo No! It (leaving) is forbidden!
Supervizo: I don’t know why we keep that lever there.
Elf King: Oh Elfo, I warn thee. For centuries no elf has ever left Elfwood!
Speako: Except Leavo–
Elf King: Speak no more of Leavo, Speako! Please, don’t open it. All will be forgiven, as long as you obey the jolly code.
Elfo: Scribble-dy, scrobble-by, screw the jolly code! I wanna taste something other than sweetness. I wanna cry salty tears, learn bitter truths, I wanna take a big meaty bite out of life and dip it in mustard.
Elf King: Mustard? Vinegar? Anchovies? These are the ravings of fools! Take one step further, you’re on your own. No elf has ever returned, not even Returno!
I thought he just said that no elf has ever left Elfwood other than “Leavo”, but then he’s saying no elf has ever returned except “Returno”, so which is it? Also, what is the “jolly code”, that’s never told to us? You can’t just overload us with throw-away lines when you’re developing a series and expect us to care.
Elfo is written as a complacent troublemaker who is longing for something else (just like Beans), but the minute he leaves the safety of elfland, he’s suddenly this dulty, naive fish-out of water. And there’s nothing to explain this sudden 180, either. He’s picked up by a hawk and immediately becomes a stock elf rambling off candy names, whistling his piccolo to the theme that all the other elves were singing while he complained. In this first episode, he’s written as two different characters, and neither one is interesting or funny.
Elfo then decides he’s hungry and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a farming family that welcomes him into their home with no questions asked and then feeds him a home-cooked meal. They’re not amazed or frightened by a mythical creature, (we’ve been told that no elf has ever left Elfwood) they’re not there to shed light on some feudal politics or maybe give us a reason to find Elfo interesting, they’re just there for a gag about how superstitious and self-deprecating poor people are, I guess? I don’t know because we never see them again.
Bean is an interesting enough protagonist, and her struggle to find agency becomes interesting when Luci shows up to introduce a bit of chaos into her life. The three heroes escape the wedding together, and there are some pretty decent laughs, mostly at the expense of her father, King Zog (John DiMaggio). With Elfo being essentially thrown into the story, there’s at least some motivation: the people of Dreamland have never seen an elf before, so they want to capture him.
There are limitless reasons to begin a “fish out of water” adventure, but the attempt with Elfo feels lazy. Elfo and Bean are entitled runaways who don’t really want to be in the place of which they currently reside. There’s no quest or mcguffin or mythos or interesting traditions that grab us. Elfo isn’t there due to some tragic or hilarious circumstances beyond his control or something of that nature, and the only threat looming over the story is that Beans might have to get married. For a series that was advertised as “The Simpsons meets Games of Thrones,” I see very little story elements of either shows other than animated castles. The jokes only unravel out of happenstance, and half of the characters are only given names out of obligation. Here’s some more actual dialogue:
“Announcing King Zog, Queen Oona, and who cares,”
There’s no context or setup to that joke at all, if you were wondering. We don’t know if the emissary hates his standing like everyone else seems to in this boring universe, or if “who cares” is some lord he has a vendetta against. It’s just a cut scene that’s supposed to be irreverent, but again we’re given nothing, and that’s the sentiment I got from this pilot: Who cares.
Groening also takes some shots at organized religion (again, edgy) that fails to give us any inkling about what this kingdom stands for or believes in. It’s just a smugg, on-the-nose criticism you’d expect to hear from a Dawkins lecture, and not from a creative genius capable of some seriously cutting religious satire. Details and world immersion are important whether your creating a fantasy world, or satirizing one. If your world is stale and underdeveloped, than so will the jokes be concerning it.
As excited as I was for this new Matt Groening project, the pilot of Disenchantment has left me disappointed. It added up to, ultimately, a half-hour of hit or miss gags strung together with a quasi-medieval theme, some overtly lazy world-building, and it ended on a cliffhanger in the most cliche sense of the word. Luckily, Nexflix puts out the entire season at once, so we don’t have to worry about the network pulling this right away. We get to see if it goes anywhere, and I for one am hoping that Part 1 finds its footing fast.
Random Moments That Had Me Laughing:
-The King of Birchwood struggling to remember his son’s name
-“And now you got bupkis!”
-“I thought that I’d get married for true love, or because I was wasted.”
-“With elf magic, I could progress far beyond card tricks!”
-Reference to the Iron Throne wherein a character is actually impaled by the blades.
So what do you think of the pilot? Did it make you want to watch more of the show? Do you think that Groening and his creative team have the chops to turn Disenchantment into a successful animated series worthy of his legacy? I guess we’ll just have to keep watching.