You know that phrase kids use about having things “living rent-free in your head”? That’s how I feel about Disenchantment. Ever since I first watched the return of a Matt Groening-made cartoon to the small screen (is Netflix still the small screen?) I’ve been thinking about the infernal thing non-stop. Not in the enamoured way one might not be able to shake an object of desire from the recesses of an addled brain, but rather in the way that you can’t get it out of your head when you witness a horrendous car accident or see a dead animal lying on the side of a barren stretch of endless highway.
Maybe that’s a little unfair. Disenchantment hasn’t traumatised me the way seeing the face of death might, but it has lodged itself in my cranium. I take pleasure in the TV that I enjoy, but I’m fascinated with those things that I don’t. Unless a show is quite nakedly offensive, terrible or insulting, it’s always worth digging into it to find out exactly why you don’t feel that swell of affection whenever you hear the first note of the opening credits.
Disenchantment is fascinating because it’s left me feeling cold even though it contains, superficially at least, so many of the charms, rhythms and aesthetics of many of Groening’s previous creations. So often you’re reminded of the zany intergalactic thrill of Futurama whenever the action relocates to a new realm, or the breadth of the Simpsons’ characterisation when a Dreamland oddball appears for a short cameo.
This could be a “me” problem, but I suspect that, given the consistently lukewarm reception the fantasy cartoon has received, the issue may not lie on my end. The more likely reason is perhaps that Disenchantment just isn’t very good. I don’t think it’s terrible, I don’t think it’s offensive and I don’t think it’s evil, but considering the pedigree of the people working on it, good God could it have been better.
To understand why, we need to go back to first principles and assess the areas in which the fantasy-cum-adventure-cum-steampunk-cum-cartoon falls short, and we start in a place that baffles as much as it frustrates. To my mind, Disenchantment’s most surprising issue is also its most pervasive and its most fatal: its characters simply aren’t good enough. Who would have thought that the same person who gave the world Homer Simpson, Bender Rodriguez and Binky the Rabbit (look it up, kids) would have fallen at this, the most important of all hurdles, a hurdle Groening had so frequently and consistently cleared in the past.
Take Princess Tiabeanie Mariabeanie de la Rochambeau Grunkwitz, or Bean for short, Disenchantment’s central protagonist and supposed driver of most of the plots within Dreamland. A rebellious yet sensitive rogue, Tiabeanie should have been a classic Groening protagonist, an up-and-at-’em firecracker capable of carrying the burden of an entire show on her royal shoulders.
Bean’s problem, however, is that she’s severely underdeveloped, too often a character hinting at or proclaiming a personality but rarely actually demonstrating one. So often we’re told that Bean loves fighting or drinking or boozing or brawling, but mostly these things seem to happen off-screen, or else the show takes the easy route by merely having its protagonist tell the audience that she’s thirsty or in the mood for some fisticuffs. I have friends like that and they’re utter bores.
Not only is Bean lacking a certain substance, but she’s also not much of a driver of Disenchantment’s central plot. For four seasons now, it seems, Bean has been at the mercy of the show’s narrative rather than the person pushing it forward, riding away from creepy industrialists or impending wars or the demons of Hell, bouncing around like a pinball in search of some form of actualisation. Bean’s mysterious powers, gradually revealed as things wear on, take so long to materialise that so much of what she does up until their discovery feels like some very serious water-treading.
Bean isn’t the only character suffering from an acute lack of dimension. Disenchantment’s core triumvirate of players, comprising Elfo the Elf, Luci the diminutive demon and Bean herself, simply don’t coalesce in the same way that, say, Futurama’s primary trio manages so effortlessly. Fry, Bender and Leela were such distinctive and definable figures that any interactions between them were effortless and ripe for the comedic harvest. I still can’t figure out what the relationships are between Disenchantment’s central protagonists, aside from the fact that occasionally Luci shows disdain for Elfo or occasionally Elfo is enamoured with Bean. When the show remembers, that is.
On the subject, the writers can seemingly never quite make up their minds about Elfo. One moment he’s a sassy two-foot diva spurning the affections of an underground cave-dweller or pissing off some random ogre five times his size, the next he’s reverted back to his sheltered elven innocence, displaying a complete lack of worldliness and yammering about getting a boo-boo on his bum-bum (or words to that effect). I don’t know whether I’m supposed to root for him or want to see him booted from the heights of Dreamland’s lofty spires. I’m increasingly leaning towards the latter.
Perhaps the biggest shame, however, is the characters who evidence so much potential yet are fatally underutilised. I love Eric Andre with a passion, but rarely has an actor been so wasted as Andre is in Disenchantment as Luci, Bean’s personal demon and confidante. Again, Luci should be the amoral dark heart of the show akin to Futurama’s Bender, but the hellspawn spends most of his time talking about all the evil or mischievous things he enjoys without ever doing them on-screen. Bender literally kicked his own child into a vat of molten lava in robot hell. I haven’t seen Luci commit so much as a minor parking infraction or even drop litter.
Meanwhile, comedy heavyweights Matt Berry, Sharon Horgan and John DiMaggio seem to fall by the wayside for great swathes of time, waiting in the wings for the plot to catch up to them and grant them a hint of relevance. Having John DiMaggio spend the best part of an entire season honking manically is like having Pavarotti stick a recorder up his nose to play London’s Burning. Horgan’s weirdy seductive tones give Queen Dagmar a confusingly erotic allure that I’m still processing, but she’s in the show in such fits and starts that she’s hard to pin your hopes on. And you know what, I don’t care that Elfo’s fallen in love with a rusty old boat for two inconsequential episodes. If we’re doing pointless filler, give me more of porcine Matt Berry wallowing in his own filth and trying to copulate with other farmyard animals.
This all, of course, evidences another of Disenchantment’s biggest faults: its plotting. Groening’s creation simply can’t decide what it’s trying to be. Sometimes it feels serialised, sometimes episodic, sometimes it wants to sit around and do nothing before suddenly remembering there’s an overarching story to explore. Things often just pinball around with endless filler, with episodes that don’t need to be as long as they are taking up swathes of valuable time while also failing to advance the plot.
An episode centering on our triumvirate getting stuck in Dagmar’s underground caves felt like an apt representation of how Disenchantment leaves one feeling as trapped and frustrated as its protagonists, while Bean’s dalliances with a mermaid in a strange and tangential plotline felt entirely insincere. “Oh and by the way, Bean might be a lesbian now, or possibly bisexual?” the show seems to shrug.
If Disenchantment’s plot can’t develop, neither can its characters. There’s too much static for people to get where they’re supposed to be going. It is plot and experience that make characters grow as they, in turn, drive the narrative, a virtuous circle that keeps things moving, but the show’s meandering, confused nature means this never quite happens. Bean and her companions end up exactly the same in Season 4 as they were in Season 1.
If you’re going to have an overarching plot, you have to have your characters evolve, continually and in response to the events they experience. Episodic shows can get away with minor adjustments over long periods because they have the luxury of time. If you’re going to hint at a purpose to all of this fantastical prophetic nonsense, at some point you need to get on the metaphorical horse and get to the actual point.
Just look at all of the supporting cast who have to sit around as practically background scenery, emotionally and narratively static because the show doesn’t put them in any situations that might let them grow. Matt Berry’s Prince Merkimer may experience a little humility on being turned into a pig, but once again, he’s off-screen for so long that any chance at a proper arc is severely hampered. When the show decides it wants to focus on him six episodes later, it’s the writing equivalent of remembering you’ve left the oven on. “Oh fuck, we forgot about the pig/the king/the amphibian pirate queen lady. Make up a new realm and have them attack or some old bollocks. Lunch?”
Everything was seemingly in place for Disenchantment to be great: the characters at least have potential, the worlds, beautifully rendered by Rough Draft, are lush and diverse (in stark contrast to the show’s rudimentary approach to proper sound design), and there are so often hints of that signature humour that has made Groening a legend in his field. The usual collection of Simpson-esque sight gags, humourously-named stores (Apothecary: Over Three Different Medicines!) and discontented incompetents (bungling wizard Sorcerio being a particular standout) all hinting at a creation straining to become more than what it currently is. But you can’t help but feel that things are always somewhat tethered, hampered by a conflicted identity and a confused overall vision, failing to truly commit to a world that should be as grimly dark as it is fantastically exciting.
If Disenchantment is a self-conscious pastiche of the wondrous yet brutal worlds of some of the more recent fantasy outings (Game of Thrones springs to mind), surely it would be best suited to following the tropes of these genres to their ludicrous extremes, or else subverting the grisly violence or powerful magic with a more self-referential twist? There’s always a hint of something dangerous or dark, but Dreamland never quite goes the full kahuna to give anything its due.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Disenchantment is the fact that it isn’t terrible. If Groening’s latest were truly dreadful, most of us would simply let it die and dig into the rest of Netflix’s extensive back catalogue, but there’s always just enough there to keep the viewer interested on the promise of a plot that actually starts going somewhere, or a gag that reminds us of those other shows we really did love.
The fantasy caper is like a badly-tuned rediffusion TV stuck on Channel 4, showing flashes of something good but always cutting in and out or else drowning proceedings in obscurifying static. Disenchantment pulled me back for its Fourth Season, the endless allure of what has turned into a mystifying misfire too much for me to resist. The show could have been so much more than what it is, but its endless mediocrity still holds sway over me. Until it eventually flourishes, if it ever does, it will continue to live rent-free inside my head.
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