This morning, a bus passed me with a Murphy Brown advertisement on it, which, given that I had completely forgotten about the latest of our current wave of nostalgic TV revivals, was extremely confusing. The thing about these revivals that can be dispiriting, even when done well, is that they seem to fundamentally believe that our attachment to certain stories and characters will bring back an era of TV that doesn’t exist. TV has changed permanently, and no IP will change that back.
Netflix’s Disenchantment is not a revival, but it does mark the first new venture of Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, in quite a while. And, despite its flaws—and it is an uneven show, to be sure—I can’t help but feel that it represents something positive in the face of all this retreading of past success: an iconic TV creator choosing not to strictly go back to the well but push himself forward in a few ways and chart out some new territory.
To be fair, Disenchantment definitely reads as “Futurama But Medieval,” at least at first. It follows Bean, a rebellious princess (Abbi Jacobson), who bucks an arranged marriage to have all kinds of high fantasy adventures with her new crew of disenchanted misfits. And it takes a while for the show to get in the realm of specificity that characterizes his other work. The deal with Futurama was that there was no cap on the number of science fiction ideas and joke that could be packed into every single dense frame. Disenchantment doesn’t have that going for it.
What it does have is animation that beautifully renders the world of Dreamland in deliberately pastoral fashion. The sweeping shots of the King’s Landing-esque main city build on Futurama’s digital camera work, and when the show takes advantage of magic in the universe it’s building, the result can be breathtaking, as when Elfo (Nat Faxon) steps out of his candy-making kingdom for the real world and seems to watch part of the fabric of reality close behind him. If the creature design on Disenchantment lacks the off-the-wall inventiveness of Futurama’s roster of aliens, the pure black, Mr. Game & Watch-y “personal demon” Luci (Eric Andre) is a wonderfully disorienting bit of simple, expressive animation.
It can also be a fascinating show to watch in terms of pace and action sequences. The series opens with a strangely languid bar fight that’s designed to establish Bean as a princess in no need of rescuing, but also has Bean and her combatants slowly crawling through the crowd to the gentle lute of Mark Mothersbaugh. When Elfo suddenly finds himself in the middle of a giant battle (a battle with giants), and fells one strictly through inaction, the sequence takes on the form of a surreal Buster Keaton gag that, again, is almost soundtrackless. Luci slowly slapping down a wall after being thrown against it plays out twice as long as a similar Zoidberg joke would—it’s kind of mesmerizing and kind of hilarious. Pregnant pauses abound. This show abandons the His Girl Friday patter of Bart Simpson. Sure, pacing is a bit of a problem, but it does feel like the show is trying to see what happens when the breakneck pace slows down, and it feels like a rejection of that pace. Netflix takes away the need for commercial breaks and each episode has a generous running time. What happens when a Groening show has a second to breathe?
But it’s Disenchantment’s serialized elements that have both garnered the most attention and suggest the boldest step forward for Team Groening. Now, what really worked about The Simpsons, a show without character ‘arcs,’ as they’re usually understood, was the more typical sitcom understanding that our emotional investment in the characters would build and build over time, our understanding of those characters and what they pine for slowly fleshing out until the show could pull at our heartstrings or sweep our feet out from under us. In Disenchantment, they dive directly into the titular malaise of each character, propelling them into larger arcs. That’s where the architecture of a Matt Groening character is tested, and initially sometimes fails.
But ten contained episodes allows Groening to try out the big narrative swings that the new era of contained, bingeable seasons (for all its faults) allows. Without spoiling anything, by the end of Disenchantment, the status quo of the Dreamland has been considerably rocked and a second season will have to stick the landing of a cliffhanger in a way neither The Simpsons nor Futurama ever really had the chance to do. Is it reinventing the wheel of the serialized narrative? No, but the writing team’s fresh eyes on those kinds of plot developments do allow them to push things to a more extreme place than most shows (and definitely most animated shows) would do in a first season (we’re ignoring Rick and Morty for the sake of this piece—it’s probably healthiest for all of us, actually).
If it feels like I’m giving Disenchantment too many points, remember that the closest parallel to this in the career of an animated comedy creator is The Cleveland Show. Groening is in his mid-60s and has made enough money just off Bartman t-shirts to live in effortless luxury for the rest of his life. The TV landscape around him sees both new creators pushing the medium forward, and an industrial push to try and reverse engineer the high ratings of the 1990s. If Disenchantment heralds the third act in his career that I think it does, then he’s an example everyone else could stand to follow.