Matt Groening may well be the father of modern animated comedy, but his new Netflix series Disenchantment arrives at a pivotal moment in his career.
Futurama is long dead, while recent series of The Simpsons have had a cultural clout of almost zero. The show’s ratings have been in steady decline for years, with only 4 million on average tuning in to the 29th season, compared with 25 million during its height in the ’90s.
The only waves it has made recently have been negative, most notably with regards to the queasy stereotypes perpetuated by the character of Apu. Groening’s response to the public outcry – which was, in essence, an audible shrug – didn’t win him any favours, either.
And while that reaction may have suggested he isn’t willing to move with the times, several elements of his new fantasy comedy Disenchantment – which follows the adventures of three misfits, a princess (Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson) her personal demon (Eric Andre) and a green elf (Nat Faxon) in a magical medieval town – prove that he hasn’t had his head entirely underground in 2018.
For the first time in a 30-year career, Groening is trying his hand at serialised storytelling. He’s also shooting for greater emotional depth than we have seen previously (notwithstanding that heart-wrenching Jurassic Bark episode of Futurama).
Unfortunately, these are the bits that don’t work as well, and sometimes detract from the things that do.
On paper you wouldn’t have guessed that Groening had been paying attention to the movements of his peers. Disenchantment looks almost identical to Futurama – it is made by the same animation studio – save for a few fancy CGI tricks, and it is set up just like an episodic cartoon.
We meet our protagonist Princess Bean, a boozy layabout in the ilk of Futurama’s Fry, on the eve of her arranged marriage to an arrogant prince (Matt Berry) from a nearby village. She has no interest in getting married, but she doesn’t seem to have any interests at all, so she can’t find a good enough excuse to get out of it.
Things take a turn, however, when she makes the mistake of opening a wedding gift early, which turns out to be a curse, leaving her tethered to a demon called Luci for eternity. Thankfully, he’s only a bit evil, and acts as the devilish side of her conscience to the angelic Elfo, who arrives in Dreamland from his magical home late on in the first episode, and strikes up a friendship with Bean.
The jokes – including a nice Game of Thrones reference, which sees one of Bean’s suitor’s impale himself on an Iron Throne replica – for the most part, are sharp, often reminiscent of some of the writing team’s best work.
However, it’s when the series begins to stray from familiar territory that the wheels begin to come off.
The episodes are bloated – the premiere runs to 35 minutes, compared with around 22 minutes for the average Simpsons adventure – and while this is a fairly common problem across the Netflix catalogue, it feels particularly detrimental here as there is not nearly enough plot to keep our attention, nor enough jokes to make the excess time feel worthwhile.
This is particularly unnerving while staring down the barrel of a ten-episode season, as Groening and co have shirked the traditional sitcom reset – citing the wonders of Netflix binge-ing – opting instead to tell a story across multiple seasons (work is well underway on season two).
Unfortunately, the plot moves at a snail’s pace (I have watched all seven episodes available for review, and I still have no idea where it’s going) often taking detours through smaller tales which are infinitely more enjoyable. An episode that sees Bean try her hand at several jobs in order to find her vocation, before deciding to become an executioner under the tutelage of a character voiced Noel Fielding, is by far the strongest of the bunch, and of the least consequence to the plot.
Plus, for all the talk of emotional depth in Groening’s limited promotional tour ahead of the series’ launch, for my money there is no furrow that hasn’t already been ploughed a few times over in Futurama (a will-they-won’t-they romance is brewing in the early episodes).
That being said, many of the old tricks work well. It’s easy to get comfortable with the character dynamics between Bean, Elfo and Luci as they are reminiscent of those between Futurama’s Fry, Bender and Leela (with the latter two acting as opposing sides of the former’s moral compass), and when they are set loose in short stories, they are nearly as enjoyable.
And the voice cast is perhaps the best Groening has assembled yet, with the low-key star-power of Jacobson, Faxon and Andre adding some zest to a base of brilliant voice actors from Futurama (John DiMaggio is a standout as Bean’s crotchety father, King Zog).
It feels unfair to compare Disenchantment to Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman – the standard bearers of animated comedy in 2018 – but its position alongside them in the Netflix UK catalogue, and the manner in which Groening and his co-creator Josh Weinstein have sold the series, encourages this. It seems that they took notice of the way in which both of these shows have managed to blend silly humour and dark, existentialist drama, and attempted to splice this into Groening’s usual formula (underachieving misfits + unusual situations + otherworldly environments), to limited success.
Disenchantment has some of the charm, the darkness and the humour that these two deal in in spades, but, in season one, it doesn’t quite make the grade. That said, The Simpsons and Futurama both took time to find their feet so there’s still a good chance Groening’s new offering could be enchanting us in seasons to come.
Disenchantment season 1 arrives on Netflix UK on Friday 17th August
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news