Welcome back to our season-by-season look at the official Greatest TV Show of All Time. Except, in this instalment, we find ourselves in a strange land – yet, one that somehow feels oddly familiar…
Disenchantment was sold as ‘the third show from Matt Groening’, but that’s not what lured me – and this blog – away from Springfield, to temporarily take up residence in the fantasy kingdom of Dreamland.
Beyond the first couple of seasons, Groening’s exact influence over the direction of The Simpsons has never been particularly clear. He famously clashed with many of the other key voices behind The Simpsons, and his original vision of a cartoon rooted in domestic realism is – as we’ve seen on our journey through the seasons – not what the show grew into at all.
Honestly, the magic of The Simpsons has always seemed like it was born out of the conflict between a number of creatives, all pulling in different directions.
So the appeal of Disenchantment wasn’t just Groening’s involvement, but the staff he brought with him. The show was co-developed with Josh Weinstein, someone who – along with his writing partner Bill Oakley, also involved in this show – is going to become increasingly important to Simpsons history over our next few instalments.
It’s also got Simpsons writers David X Cohen (seasons 5-10) and Reid Harrison (season 9), and director Wesley Archer (seasons 1-7). In short, Disenchantment is something of a Simpsons reunion – but it doesn’t necessarily have the same energy as the seasons these people worked on together.
“It’s a ship of war, flying the dread flag of the Borcs!”
There are two fairly obvious differences between the shows, the first being that Disenchantment is set in a fantasy world. In many ways, that makes the more obvious point of comparison Groening’s second show, Futurama.
It shares at least as many staff, especially among the voice cast, and the fantasy element sets it up for the same kind of ‘everyday stuff filtered through a weird world’ gags that Futurama was so good at. Like, to pick a random example from Disenchantment, a car chase where the police are on donkeys, and their sirens are candle-powered.
But if you put the three shows and their settings alongside one another, it’s actually Disenchantment which stands out as different.
We’ve talked before about how much worldbuilding goes into Springfield. And honestly, the lore of this apparently everyday town – founded by a pirate, locked in an eternal rivalry with its neighbour, home to such follies as the escalator to nowhere – is considerably deeper and weirder than Dreamland’s.
That comparison isn’t entirely fair to Disenchantment, which after all has only had 10 episodes to establish its world. But put it next to Futurama’s first season, which takes you from a rickety amusement park on the moon and – by its ninth and final episode – all the way to robot hell, and the scarcity of ideas becomes really clear.
At its core, Disenchantment’s world lacks a central argument. In The Simpsons, Springfield is a town shaped by television – with a family who take their life lessons from TV at its centre, and populated by side characters lifted straight from the peculiar reality of sitcoms.
Futurama’s 31st Century is a broad satire of everything wrong with America as it entered the 21st.
Disenchantment’s Dreamland is a stew of medieval/fantasy/fairytale tropes, without a clear worldview underpinning it. You know that muddy non-colour you end up with you mix together too many together? So far, that’s pretty much Disenchantment’s world.
“I might as well give up and accept that I’ll never be anything more than a wealthy queen of a fabulous faraway kingdom.”
Even putting the baggage of Disenchantment’s sister shows aside, and examining it purely as a fantasy setting, Dreamland still lacks anything that makes it distinct.
Elves haven’t been seen in centuries, we’re told in the first episode, and they took the magic with them. So this is a low-magic world that used to be more fantastical. That could make for a fascinating hook, similar to the one that Simon Spurrier and Matías Bergara are currently exploring in their comic Coda – but there’s no sense that the world is suffering from magical withdrawal symptoms.
So it’s just ‘A Fantasy World’. Okay, that’s not something we’ve seen in many television animated comedies… But it’s still hard not to feel like Disenchantment fails to capitalise on the opportunity. Every scene could be packed with visually inventive creature designs straight from Groening’s pen – his early Life in Hell comics show how good he is with grotesques – but mostly it’s just humans in medieval dress, mostly in the same, blankly medieval location.
There are moments where light breaks through the clouds. The design of Luci is a cool visual – a demonic Mr Game & Watch, a silhouette of pure black who is consistently rendered in two dimensions to convey his otherworldliness. Hansel & Gretel’s cabin in the woods, with its Saw-meets-Cube candy labyrinth. The glimpses we’ve had of other lands – Dankmire, Cremorrah, Maru…
I’m also strangely tickled by the way messenger turkeys are the main means of communication. It’s a nice, funny touch of worldbuilding, not quite a joke in itself but the kind of thing that makes a place feel specific. I struggle to think of any other examples. And that’s kind of my point.
“I’m already smoking and laughing. What more do you want?”
But I said there were two differences between Disenchantment and its forebears, and the second is one I’m much more sympathetic to – the structure of the show’s stories.
The Simpsons is just about the most purely episodic TV show possible, with each instalment essentially taking place in its own continuity. Disenchantment, meanwhile, is more in keeping with the current televisual zeitgeist for a single serialised story broken into chapters.
Or at least, that’s what the first episode promises: a quest story, as Princess Bean breaks free from enforced matrimony and heads out into the world with two companions to find herself. That’s quickly undone, though, and in the middle of the season (sorry, technically, ‘first half of a season that will be completed next year’, but… c’mon) it settles into more of an episode-by-episode ‘premise of the week’ approach, connected by a few running plot threads.
At this point, the weight of the show comes to rest not on the world, the premise or the story, but the sitcommy pleasure of hanging out with a surrogate friendship group. Which means that everything comes down to how well you get on with the characters. Which, again, is mixed.
Of the core trio, Luci is cut from the most familiar cloth. He’s Futurama’s Bender, essentially – the hard-drinking, chain-smoking literal devil on Bean’s shoulder. He makes the biggest first impression, because he’s a larger-than-life character who gets a few good lines early on. He’s also probably the least interesting as the show develops, precisely because he is so familiar.
“Scribeldy-scrobeldy-screw the Jolly Code! I wanna taste something other than sweetness. I want to cry salty tears, learn bitter truths. I want to take a big, meaty bite out of life and dip it in mustard.”
Elfo is… Well, Elfo’s complicated. He’s someone who grew up in a place where everyone is happy, all of the time, and that makes him miserable. Having said earlier that I struggle to recognise Matt Groening’s authorial fingerprints, Elfo feels like a very Groening character to me.
That mix of Happy Little Elves enforced jolliness with cynicism (“singing while you work’s not happiness, it’s mental illness”), and his relationship with Kissy (“your whining really turns me on”) in the first episode gives Elfo a real embittered alt-comix cartoonist vibe. And, honestly, I’m into it.
He’s a character who leaves paradise because there’s no friction to life there. That’s a fascinating conceit, which neatly mirrors Bean’s own castle-bound misery.
And then the show kind of forgets about all that, in favour of making Elfo a constant punching bag, the show’s equivalent of Milhouse or Zoidberg. That could work, too – he’s a rebel by the standards of Elfwood but an enormous wuss outside of its boundaries – except for his relationship with Bean.
Elfo is a creep, the kind of guy who probably goes onto Dreamland’s turkey-powered equivalent of Reddit to throw around terms like ‘friendzone’ and ‘incel’. It’s not clear how aware Disenchantment is of this, because it seems to be treating the two as a replay of Futurama’s Fry and Leela. And, frankly, Bean deserves better.
“What’s this weird feeling I don’t want to drink away?”
Princess Tiabeanie is the anchor for the show’s greatest successes. She’s a character who doesn’t really fit into an existing Simpsons or Futurama archetype, if only because she’s in her late teens, an age group that’s largely absent from both shows.
Early on, she feels like a Harrison Ford character – her introduction is all bad gambles and bar brawls, and Bean uses her cunning to get out of tight corners – but she’s slowly revealed as more and more of a screw up, who is basically never sober.
You could take a harder-edged approach to Bean – the lonely kid using drink and drugs to stop herself feeling anything after she loses her mom – but that’s only really there at the darker edges. But it does seep out slowly as the show, and especially Bean’s relationship with her father, develops.
King Zøg starts out as a fairly one-dimensional figure, the king forcing his daughter into marriage, but his dynamic with Bean grows richer with each episode. He’s disappointed in her, but he also wants her to be happy and successful, and – as we learn later on – he’s got his own reasons for being a screw-up. Really, this is the strength that Disenchantment borrows most from The Simpsons, where Homer’s complicated relationship with his kids, the careful balance of pride and shame, is one of the most reliable ways of bringing a lump to my throat.
(Sidenote, as I research this piece: Omg, he’s named after a real figure. Zog I of Albania, who got promoted from Prime Minister to President to the country’s first and only King.)
He’s also blessed with the voice of John DiMaggio (Futurama’s Bender) who gives Zøg the air of… you know those guys from that one poster, having their lunch on a girder dangling above New York? He’s a blue-collar monarch, and the contrast that creates with the people doing their best cut-glass British fantasy accent really does inform the character.
“Nice likeness… Competent latticework… Moving down, sugar columns seem structurally sound… Back looks good… And just a cursory glance at the bottom tier…”
Bean and Zøg’s relationship is the foundation of the finest sitcom moments – including the show’s single greatest running joke, where Zøg slowly inspects something, describing the process out loud as he builds to the inevitable punchline – but also of the finest story moments in its finale.
The latter episodes break out of the sitcom rhythm to deliver on the show’s initial promise, telling a story with stakes, consequences and heart. There’s a twist, which in turn sets up a mystery, and it all ends on a cliffhanger – plus a post-credits sting.
The twist is delivered in a manner that’s very reminiscent of Futurama’s long-gestating reveals, revisiting past scenes and adding new information. I’m not sure Disenchantment’s equivalent plays entirely fair – I’ve watched the final episode a couple of times, and the moment that this all revolves around doesn’t quite fit into the initial version of events – but it gets away with it, if only because of where it takes the show.
In the last couple of episodes, Disenchantment finally starts to make sense. In light of where it ends up, you can maybe see the edges of a grander design to the earlier episodes. The formula of ‘Bean does a bad thing, just about atones for it, then does something worse in time for the next episode’ might have actual purpose.
The finale even starts to tease a greater visual variety, and the possibility of a more interesting wider world.
In just ten episodes, the nature of show shifts a few times. There are things that work in each version, and things that don’t, but this final guise is the one which suits it best. By the end, it feels like Disenchantment has revealed itself as a slightly different entity to the one we were pitched, ‘‘the third show from Matt Groening’.
It’s not so much a fantasy sitcom as a plot-driven genre show that happens to be animated and have jokes in it. It feels like there may actually be room for that series, certainly more than for something which has to live in the shadow of what is, according to the intro text of this very blog, the official Greatest TV Show of All Time.
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