Disenchantment’s biggest middle finger to fairy-tale tropes comes midway through the first episode, when Princess “Bean” Tiabeanie (Abbi Jacobson) refuses to marry the prince she’s been contracted to by her father. But the subtler subversions are more satisfying. Bean’s getting-ready routine involves not bluebirds and singing mice, but leeches, one for each cheek to give her a healthy glow (“Whores rouge, ladies leech,” Bean’s maid says, cheerily). Hansel and Gretel aren’t innocent orphans, but sadistic wretches who do much worse than eat an old lady’s dream house. Bean’s magical companion isn’t a godmother or a genie, but a literal demon who encourages her worst impulses to drink, gamble, and wreak havoc on the kingdom.
The new Netflix animated series from Matt Groening is The Simpsons’ creator’s first new show in almost two decades. If Futurama, his 1999 sitcom set in the 31st century, used the future to explore the ever constant frailty of the human condition, Disenchantment uses the past. Set in Dreamland, a kind of Game of Thrones meets Hans Christian Andersen fantasy world, it’s populated with elves, gnomes, giants, ogres, fairies, and mermaids. But the gag is the same. The landscape is less garishly drawn than The Simpsons and Futurama: It’s a world that evokes the pastel-colored illustrations from children’s books, even though Groening’s signature bug-eyed style remains unchanged. The question is, with so many Groening-inspired innovators having created their own animated worlds since then, does it still feel relevant?
Not entirely. Disenchantment takes advantage of its new streaming platform to push the adult-content envelope, but not for any reason other than that it can. It’s not here to slyly probe the tragicomic balance of being alive, like BoJack Horseman, or satirize the agonies of adolescent sexuality, like Big Mouth. It’s designed simply to entertain, which—for the most part—it does. It’s occasionally frustrating, only because there’s so much contemporary insight to be teased out of the stories Groening uses as his source material. Disenchantment positions its antiheroine as if the show’s going to reinvent the fairy tale for a new generation, but it doesn’t seem entirely confident about how to do so.
As a character, Bean feels like Groening wanted to incorporate elements of different Simpsons characters all in one teenage girl. Bean drinks, belches, and thwarts herself as reliably as Homer; she’s as rebellious and prone to wisecracks as Bart. She’s also as intelligent and (in interludes) as caring as Lisa. None of this makes for an entirely consistent character, even with Jacobson’s comic talent. In the first episode, Bean is due to marry a prince from a neighboring land in a diplomatic exercise engineered by her father, the slovenly and irascible King Zog (Futurama’s John DiMaggio). There’s a Trumpian air to Zog, amplified by his narcissism, his fits of pique, and his Slavic part-salamander bride, Queen Oona (Tress MacNeille).
Egged on by a personal demon named Luci (Eric André), whom Bean accidentally liberates from a wedding gift, Bean rejects the marriage, and spends the next few episodes trying to forge her own path. She’s aided by an elf, Elfo (Nat Faxon), who’s escaped from his own predestined fate of making candy on an assembly line, and whose infatuation with Bean mirrors Fry’s obsession with Leela in Futurama. Elfo’s innocence is a recurring gag, but he’s more interesting when darker elements of his personality come through. Luci, whose demonic form frequently leads people to think he’s a cat, lacks defining characteristics outside of his lust for mayhem.
Part of the problem seems to be that Disenchantment wants to spin a larger story beyond each self-contained episode, but it’s more comfortable doing the opposite. Self-expiring story lines, like an episode in which Bean is apprenticed to a friendly executioner (voiced by the comedian and TV host Noel Fielding), are engaging on their own. A scene in which Bean fights a fully grown (and cannibalistic) Hansel and Gretel feels right out of “Treehouse of Horror.” And Groening’s genius for slapstick is perfectly tuned for the medieval setting, as is his proclivity for sight gags (a pub in Dreamland is called the Spotted Live Ale House; a sign in an enchanted forest warning against a racist antelope turns out to be more than just decoration).
The fun, though, is all superficial; there are no real stakes to gamble with. Bean and Elfo’s rebellions against their unsatisfying lives are low-key satisfying, but it’s hard to see where they might be leading. And the satire of Disenchantment is distinctly less sharp than in The Simpsons, even with the license to go further. There are plot developments that seem dark at first (an elf execution, a fairy sex worker, a medieval hallucinogen den), but the show seems to lack the courage to follow through. That doesn’t mean it isn’t visually enticing, or genuinely funny in moments. Disenchantment just feels full of potential that it hasn’t yet figured out.
That’s maybe because it stays very much in safe territory. Groening has been criticized recently for his unwillingness to evolve with the times, particularly with regards to the Simpsons character Apu, an Indian character voiced by a white actor. Groening is one of the most influential cartoonists of all time, and the proliferation of adult-oriented animated series on TV now is in large part thanks to the ground he broke. The irony is that his newer work now feels less than revolutionary by comparison. Still, the world he’s built in Disenchantment feels ripe for disruption, if Groening’s willing to try.
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