Matt Groening's Disenchantment is Darker, But the Signature Simpsons Charm is Alive and Well
Twenty-ning years and counting since it first aired, The Simpsons is still up and running, set to premiere its 30th season this September. Futurama, on the other hand, is long gone. But thankfully, there's Disenchantment—a new Netflix series by Matt Groening, the mind that brought us both. Here, Groening leaps into the streaming era with a dark comedy set in a medieval fantasy world, taking inspiration from Monty Python and The Wizard of Oz.
While the first ten episodes of Disenchantment don't drop until August 17, we were fortunate to get an early look at the first two episodes, which on their own are sufficient reassurance that Simpsons-brand wit and humor are alive and well.
Disenchantment is mainly different from Groening's previous works in its dark humor. Dreamland is more like a cartoon Westeros than anything in Springfield or the universe of Futurama.
The pilot episode of Disenchantment quickly establishes its setting and main characters: In the medieval kingdom of Dreamland, Princess Tiabeanie (Abbi Jacobson), or Bean for short, is arranged to marry the prince of another kingdom by her father King Zog, who wants to consolidate power. But Bean—the spunky, defiant, beer-drinking princess that she is—won't have it. She later meets and escapes with Luci (Eric Andre), her personal demon who always encourages her worst impulses; and Elfo (Nat Faxon), a lovably dense elf who runs away from his elvish kingdom of sterile, round-the-clock happiness. The first two episodes revolve around that premise of the trio dodging Bean's arranged marriage. Naturally, hijinks, misadventures, plus a few Game of Thrones references ensue.
Disenchantment is mainly different from Groening's previous works in its dark humor. Dreamland is more like a cartoon Westeros than anything in Springfield or the universe of Futurama. Appropriately for a medieval setting, death, disease and war are constants, so there are a lot of morbid little details scattered throughout the show. But as in The Simpsons and Futurama, all of it is handled in a cute, charming, tongue-in-cheek way.
Disenchantment also departs from Groening's body of work in that it follows a serialized format, with a continuity of episodes to follow. This leaves more room for character development over time, and possibly a deeper story. Groening himself has differentiates Disenchantment this way, saying, "The Simpsons is a family sitcom, Futurama was a workplace comedy, and Disenchantment is a show about three damaged people in a magical world trying to figure out who they are and where they are going."
You can already get a sense of this in the first two episodes: Bean struggles to break free from the demands of her life as a monarch, and Elfo is unsatisfied with the assembly-line monotony of his life as an elf. "I'd rather die a big death than live a small life," he says, setting the tone for the adventures to come. And because the main characters are already immediately lovable, viewers are given enough reason to want to follow them down those paths.
Held up against the current crop of not-just-for-kids cartoons like Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty, Disenchantment does come off as a bit little dull—so far lacking the sort of sharp humor and edgy thinkpiece-worthy themes that have made its contemporaries successful. Also, while it doesn't bore, some jokes don't quite stick the landing.
But Disenchantment is still just as smart, and one could argue that it doesn't need to be as sharp and complex. In fact, its formulaic simplicity is actually refreshing—precisely the reason that it's still fun to watch The Simpsons after all these years. Matt Groening's first animated series didn't exactly make it big for scathing cultural commentary or esoteric themes (although it did turn out to have a knack for pop culture predictions). People loved The Simpsons because of the characters, who were each charming and lovable and relatable in some way; and also because of the persistent world that they inhabited, which was always fun to escape to. By the same virtues, it won't be too hard to fall in love with Disenchantment if it can establish the same over its first season. So far, it's off to a good start.
Catch Disenchantment when it launches on Netflix on August 17.