Disenchantment is a confounding show. On one hand, it sports a likable cast, gorgeously rendered animation, and enough sneaky commentary to keep attentive viewers reasonably amused. On the other, the show relies too heavily on poorly delivered snark and not heavily enough on the acerbic wit for which Matt Groening is known and loved. The result is an enlightened comedy that doesn’t lean far enough into either of its chief aspects for it to have an identity. We’ve only seen half of what Groening has planned; the second half of the series will premiere later in 2019.
The series chronicles the misadventures of Princess Tiabeanie, her demon Luci, and the dim-witted wood elf, Elfo, as they navigate life in the dysfunctional Dreamland. Nicknamed “Bean” by her father and close friends, Tiabeanie struggles to find her place in a world where showing independence and kindness is unthinkable.
Disenchantment is an inconsistent fantasy-comedy that, despite its best efforts, fails to meet the lofty expectations set by Groening’s previous endeavors. Gone is the Futurama-esque charm. What we’re left with is a sporadically engaging, frequently tiresome romp through a world that’s as skeletal as many of its ideas.
As a vehicle for Groening’s musings on the status quo, Disenchantment occasionally works. It does boast the famed showrunner’s trademark self-awareness and sociopolitical bite, even if its teeth could’ve been sharper (“How dare you bring logic into God’s house!”). However, there’s an overwhelming sense of “This could have been so much better” that distracts from what they actually give us. Missed opportunities abound, especially where the Elfo/Luci dynamic is concerned. The writers recognize the comedic potential between the two but never quite bring that realization into their scripts. The seventh episode, “Love’s Tender Rampage,” stands out because of both Peter Avanzino’s deft direction and the absence of the contrived Elfo/Luci relationship. There aren’t many takeaways in Disenchantment, but there are some fun bits that make it worth at least one watch-through.
Now, back to the political/social aspects of the show. Speaking with Exclaim!, Groening said, “If there are any overt politics, it’s that it’s got a definite feminist point of view.” Three episodes in, main characters Bean, Luci, and Elfo encounter a genderneutral gang, of which a purple-haired woman appears to be the leader. As she traps Bean and company in the royal family crypt, she shouts, “Just so you know, I would’ve done the same thing if you were a man!” Some may find such dialogue a bit ham-fisted, but it honestly contrasts nicely with the show’s subtlety. When addressing issues as sensitive and important as gender equality, equivocation is unnecessary and probably even harmful. That’s like whispering into a bullhorn; you’ve got the means to make your voice heard but you lack the confidence to say what you mean in the clearest manner possible. Good on you there, Groening.
Disenchantment exists in that dreaded space between passable and forgettable; parts of it shine, but most of it gives off a faint glimmer of something far better. So yes, Groening missed his mark with the first half of the series. Let’s see if he can manage a comeback.