Disenchanted With Disenchantment

by Arthur B

Matt Groening's new fantasy-themed cartoon series isn't that good.
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Bean (Abbi Jacobson) - Princess Tiabeanie to her parents - is the violent, hard-drinking heir to the financially embarrassed fantasy realm of Dreamland. To seal an alliance, her father King Zøg (John DiMaggio) is determined to marry her off to the useless, somewhat Zap Brannigan-like Prince Merkimer (Matt Berry). Elfo (Nat Faxon) is an elf who’s sick to death of living a joy-filled, idyllic existence in a candy forest, and whose blood might be the key to the Elixir of Life. Luci (Eric Andre) is a very diminutive demon who was sent by a sinister duo of sorcerers (voiced by Lucy Montgomery and Berry’s Snuff Box partner Rich Fulcher) in order to act as a sort of anti-conscience for her in order to drag her down the path of evil. Together, they… don’t fight crime. But they do get up to a lot of mischief!

Like fellow Netflix exclusive Bojack Horseman, Matt Groening’s Disenchantment takes a while to hit high gear. The biggest laughs I got in the first seven episodes came from Matt Berry's character - particularly his delivery of the line “Then let this be a warning to your other allies!” in a particularly ironic context. In general I found it perked up a little after the first couple of episodes, once it becomes clear that the series was going to move past the forced marriage angle rather than stick with it perpetually. (In fact, it’s quite good at shaking up its central premises every few episodes, rather than leaving things in a Simpsons-esque steady state in perpetuity - for instance, in episode 5 Bean gets disowned by the King due to shit she did in episode 4 and she has to go get a job as an apprentice for Noel Fielding’s excellent town executioner.)

Unlike Bojack, however, that high gear isn’t quite good enough to justify sitting through the early material - like I said, it does perk up, but it only perks up a little, and in the process of that perking it makes a number of additional blunders. I confess that I haven’t watched the whole series - I stopped watching after episode 7, and I note from episode guides that the plot develops rapidly from episode 8 to 10. However, I am left with little to no faith that Groening will keep up that pace in season 2, and there’s issues with the foundations of the series which I feel will remain an issue going forwards.

Let’s start out by picking on the little guy. Elfo’s got the same unrequited love-type infatuation with Bean that Fry has for Leela in much of Futurama; essentially he’s Fry’s Nice Guy issues in Bart Simpson’s diminutive, pudgy body, and that’s exactly as unappealing as it sounds. At points it does at least seem like we’re meant to find this unappealing, and that Groening and his team are intentionally presenting Elfo’s Nice Guy nonsense as an unsympathetic character trait, and we aren’t really meant to root for Elfo to get together with Bean in the same way we were supposed to hope for Fry and Leela to be a thing.

Episode 4 depicts Bean having a bunch of love life issues and getting rejected a lot; in principle that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in much of the comedies out there (outside of the specific niche of romantic comedies) the usual order of things is that you have a male protagonist who’s a bit luckless on that front and gets rejected by a lot of women - kind of like you have here with Elfo - but you don’t get the same experience depicted from the point of view of women. This feeds into the nonsense Incel/Nice Guy myth of women having absolutely no problems in the romantic sphere and always being able to find a dude to sleep with whenever they like and generally being the gatekeepers of sex, so it’s nice to see Groening doing something to counteract that.

Unfortunately, the exact same episode starts dropping will they/won’t they hints between Bean and Elfo which threatens to undo the same good work, though episode 7 does seem like it’s trying to make up for it - not only does it clearly state “They Won’t” in an early scene, but it puts Elfo’s toxic side under a serious microscope and it doesn’t take any easy routes to let him off the hook. (It even brings back Matt Berry’s character for even further takedowns of male toxicity.) Unfortunately, it pisses away all of its good work by steering the Bean/Elfo interaction straight back towards will they/won’t they territory in its very last scene, though a charitable reading of the scene would be “Maybe, but only if they’re so high that they can’t meaningfully consent or control themselves.”

It’s a shame that Elfo is such a turd, because otherwise the core trio here are pretty decent. Luci is a lot of fun, particularly the way he’s drawn in this very simple, abstract, two-dimensional style which both harkens back to Groening’s early career and actually works quite well to denote him as an otherplanar entity of shadow and friendly malice. He’s very much in the Bender school of “dirtbag friends who encourage the main character to bring out their worst side”, but Eric Andre has fun putting his own spin on the concept (though Eric Andre working to someone else’s script is never going to be quite as fun as Eric Andre running wild on The Eric Andre Show). As perhaps the most two-dimensional character (literally, see my notes on his art style at the start of this paragraph), he’s given the least meaty plot of the core three and in some ways that might be for the best.

Bean is in a lot of respects Lisa Simpson with more agency and willingness to outright say “no” to people and less inclination to be a big smartypants. It’s the same “dissatisfaction with what life’s dealt you but not entirely being sure that the grass is actually greener on the other side” deal, but less inadvertently depressing. Lisa’s story arc accidentally ends up being miserable because it’s a truncated arc that can never develop beyond a certain point: Lisa can feel out of place among her peers in Springfield and even put her finger on why, but she can’t ever grow up and move out (except in the odd “Here’s a possible future for them” episode like the one where they predicted the Trump presidency).

Conversely, it genuinely feels like each episode means something here - over the first five episodes, for instance, Bean goes from a reluctant bride who finds it really hard to refuse her father to an acclaimed killer who finds just the right level of violent threat to keep him sweet. (One of the things I did like about the series is the way it accepts that a protagonist’s character development doesn’t necessarily mean their more appealing or likable traits are intensified - sometimes they just let their dark side run free. Episode 3 has the trio joyriding, leaving drowning women to die, stealing drugs from Bean’s slightly Lovecraftian stepmom and getting high, and then helping a gang of local thieves raid the royal tombs.)

So much for the main characters; what of the world they occupy? Game of Thrones was clearly high in the team’s mind - there’s even a prominent throne made of slightly out-of-warranty swords which plays a role in a gag in the first episode - but beyond “It’s a fantasy/fairytale land” they don’t seem to have much of a solid concept of what the world is actually like, right down to the cosmology itself being inconsistent. For instance, we repeatedly see that demons like fire, what with Luci chilling out in a campfire or wandering into Hansel and Gretel’s stove to save Elfo, but then at one point an exorcist tries to banish him by tossing him into a volcano, which seems a bit like curing someone of alcoholism by force-feeding them gin. It’d be less of an issue if there were some indication as to why the volcano isn’t a demon-compatible fire, but I didn’t spot one.

Perhaps the character worst serve by the team’s loose worldbuilding is Queen Oona (Tress MacNeille), Bean’s fish-lady stepmother from the Deep One-tastic realm of Dankmire. It feels like Oona was initially sketched out as a vampire - complete with Eastern European accent for an extra mildly racist “Eastern European mail order bride” implication - before she was given more fish-oriented qualities as a throwaway gag, then Dankmire was invented as a place for her to come from, then when they decided to depict Dankmire in the show they lazily appropriated a bunch of features from East Asian culture - predominantly Japan.

This is the cue for a torrent of abhorrent racism - there’s a joke centred around bowing which has no place in 21st Century television - and also makes Oona’s accent incredibly incongruous. (It also means she gets to embody two “mail order bride” racist jokes for the price of one, “Asian mail order bride” being about as widely-circulated a joke as “Eastern European mail order bride”.) Given that the episode includes Bean, as ambassador, noisily vomiting in the lap of the Dankmire Lord Chancellor, I think Groening was going for a “Bush the First deeply embarrasses the US on a diplomatic trip to Japan by vomiting on the Japanese prime minister’s lap” satire angle, but that joke’s been stale since the earliest Simpsons seasons; if Groening is really reaching that far back for a joke then that suggests a startling paucity of ideas.

Speaking of axes that Groening has been grinding for so long that he’s basically rubbing away at a tiny stub at this point, the show’s criticism of religion, whilst mostly targeted at various hypocrisies of the medieval church that haven’t entirely gone away, does veer increasingly towards the outright hostile and Richard Dawkins-tastic; the series seems to be very much written from the perspective that anyone who believes in a God has to be incredibly stupid or uncritical. This isn’t the only instance of the jokes becoming actively mean-spirited; there’s a parody of Disney’s take on Tinkerbell as an aging, cynical prostitute, whose clients are little birds wearing business suits, which seems to be nothing more than an excuse to be unpleasant as possible about beloved children’s characters.

To steer away from individual gags and look closer at the general worldbuilding: the problem Groening has is that if you are going to have each episode actually be canon and meaningful and not hit a hard or soft reset button between each episode, then your worldbuilding really needs a certain level of consistency which Disenchantment just doesn’t deliver. You can go wild and wacky and self-contradictory on something like The Simpsons, where it’s generally accepted that whatever happened in one episode will be largely forgotten in later episodes and it’s always significant when this isn’t the case. You can also do it on something like Futurama, where you’re dealing with a big galaxy of literally limitless possibilities and, even if the reset button isn’t hit quite as hard between episodes as it is on The Simpsons, there’s still a stronger and more consistent status quo than there is here.

Disenchantment, however, wants to have most of the action unfold in a small capital city of a small kingdom in a world where shit that happened one episode remains relevant in future episodes and that affects how the characters see the world. If a show is not going to have a stable status quo, it kind of needs stable worldbuilding to provide some sort of foundation to hang the show on, particularly if the changes to the status quo and the relevance of past events is to seem important. If the world seems random and arbitrary and a place where any old shit can happen, then it’s hard-to-impossible to get a sense of the importance of any of that stuff that’s happened.

On a more technical level, the episodes also sound bad - like something in the production was just very slightly off in a way I find difficult to pin down. The central illusion that cartoon soundtracks have to put over is that the voices you are hearing come from the characters you see onscreen, and the background sound effects are happening in the environment they exist in, and that it isn’t just a bunch of voice actors reading lines in booths with foley artists filling in the other noises. For some reason, the illusion just doesn’t quite come together here. It very much feels like the actors were just reading their lines from their scripts in total isolation from each other, rather than they’re naturally reacting to what each other is saying, and it also feels like the first semi-acceptable read on any particular line was accepted rather than a high bar being set for the voice acting.

As I understand it, this set of ten episodes was already designed with the second tranche of ten in mind, but come the fuck on, if you’re already multiple hours into a series and it isn’t clicking then that speaks really badly for the show’s core premise. At the very least, it suggests a ton of padding to the front of the series which could have been happily trimmed - by quitting after episode 7 I’ve still watched over a third of the 20-episode order, and if act 1 of a three-act story is poor then that's suggestive of a highly flawed story altogether. Apparently reviews of the show have skewed a bit more positive after reviewers have been able to see the last three episodes of this chunk - only the first seven were circulated prior to the Netflix release. Unfortunately, that thumbs-up seems predicated on the remaining ten episodes being more like the last three of this season than the first seven, and I very much suspect that won’t be the case.
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Comments (go to latest)
https://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 16:00 on 2018-08-27
I kind of agree with some things, the sound was a bit off, some of the characters did miss (though a lot is going to depend on exactly what they do with what happened to Elfo...) but the last few episodes had a bunch of real neat tweaks. (especially what was going on with Oona, and how they ended up completely twisting around what you had been expecting of her towards the end)

I am definitely going to watch the next ten episodes just because I am kind of interested in seeing where it goes, even if a lot of the jokes didn't land.
Raymond H at 12:55 on 2018-09-01
Rich Fulcher, Matt Berry, AND Noel Fielding? What is this? The Mighty Boosh in Fantasyland? Aha, badum-tish!
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Actually that sounds awesome.

Also, as the team's resident Japan-guy, I am legitimately upset that I had never heard of the George H. W. Bush vomit incident until this review. Apparently there was also a Jimmy Carter rabbit incident, a Bill Clinton haircut controversy, a Jimmy Carter UFO incident, and the Dick Cheney hunting incident (that at least I already knew about).
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