There’s an episode of FUTURAMA where Fry skewers the American TV-watching audience. He posits that “Audiences don’t want anything new! They want the same thing, week after week, and at the end everything goes back to normal! New makes them scared.”
Matt Groening’s epic fantasy send-up DISENCHANTMENT was one of the most anticipated series to hit Netflix in summer 2018. The episodes dropped, and other than a few “meh” reports from reviewers at The New York Times and Vulture, there was general silence in animation circles. For those who did bring it up, the usual refrain was: “It isn’t THE SIMPSONS or FUTURAMA.” Most reviews praise the pilot, but I find this odd, as the pilot is by far the weakest part of the series, and, by all accounts, where most people stopped watching all together. Based on the trailers and the art released before the show actually dropped, people wanted to stick DISENCHANTMENT into the context of “what if Disney animated movies were actually vulgar and for adults, ha ha.” I think when DISENCHANTMENT pretty clearly turned out not to be that, audiences felt unsure of what it was and that uncertainty turned them away.
Not that it’s a proven business model or anything
After binging the first season on Netflix, I am here to tell you that DISENCHANTMENT is a good show, and it deserves a chance. It’s funny, it’s well-animated, there’s an underlying mystery that I’m dying to know more about, and, perhaps most importantly, it is genuinely emotional.
This is really where the disconnect lies between what the expectations were and what the product actually is. While THE SIMPSONS and FUTURAMA did deal in emotion, they had a much more cynical viewpoint as they smashed preconceptions of the touchy-feely sitcoms that came before them, quite often doing heel-turns on the emotional moments to make a joke.
DISENCHANTMENT has real, earnest sentimentality, which may have surprised viewers who were used to and expecting the hard-edged Netflix comedies like BOJACK HORSEMAN or BIG MOUTH. Disenchantment is more GRAVITY FALLS than FUTURAMA, but with the ability to tackle deeper feelings and issues to connect with adults rather than children. It’s probably the safest and gentlest of Groening’s shows (to a point—there are still plenty of bloody murders and ribald jokes). But what’s wrong with being a little softer now and again? The comedy is still there. A scene where the protagonist, Princess Bean, does a drug called snakeroot with her companions and immediately shrieks that they should start a band after some disjointed, rhythmic clapping had me howling—and yet, they’re still able to use that comedy to drill down into the psyche and inner turmoil of their characters to a point that had me a little teary-eyed after viewing.
Great, we’ve caught them with light-hearted comedy—now reel them in with existential dread!
Bean puts on a hard exterior, but she genuinely cares about her friends and is affected when bad things happen to them. A particularly heart-rending scene comes up halfway through the season where Bean, sick of being seen as a screw-up and useless, is given the task of leading a highly diplomatic mission, and she does great—until she is sabotaged. Bean’s realization that she has failed and what that means for her in terms of her usefulness in her own kingdom and in her own family is devastating to watch, and although it’s saved from being a total downer by the comedy, it still makes you feel for the character.
DISENCHANTMENT is really less of a sitcom and more of a comedic character study piece with comedy thrown in as a bonus. It’s about a young girl desperately trying to figure out where she can fit in that doesn’t completely stifle her as a person, but still can hold her family together after a major tragedy (which won’t be revealed here because… spoilers. Watch the show). She is flanked by her friends: Luci, a demon; and Elfo, an elf, who are both also trying to buck conventions of what’s expected of them to find their places in the world without giving up their identities. They have adventures, yes; this is a fantasy show after all. But that deeper kernel of who you are versus who you want to be is what keeps it all going.
I want to be… single
The constant pattern of “It’s not THE SIMPSONS or FUTURAMA” and completely writing off a show after watching five minutes of the pilot is endemic of another problem put forward by the modern media-consuming audience, what the New York Times calls “the Netflix effect.” In a nutshell, if something isn’t perfectly grabbing our attention immediately, from the very first frame of the show to about the five-minute mark, we should turn from it and find something better. We have to remember that it wasn’t always this way—many of our beloved shows had rocky first seasons, but because we did not yet have the instant gratification of immediately turning to something else, creators had time to dig into their worlds, to build up their series, and to create stories that lasted.
We have to remember that when THE SIMPSONS first started, the first season was, quite frankly, bad. The animation was horrible and the writers hadn’t struck the tone they wanted to find to differentiate a series from the Tracy Ullman shorts. FUTURAMA was almost decimated in its first season because it couldn’t hold on to viewership after its slot was moved from Sundays to Tuesdays, but today both of these shows are lauded as cornerstones of American television. Even BOJACK HORSEMAN, ostensibly one of the best adult animated shows on Netflix, started off slow and clunky. Because it wasn’t as hotly anticipated as a new Matt Groening show was, we allowed it time to pick up steam—an accommodation DISENCHANTMENT wasn’t allowed to have.
Are Millennials Killing the Princess Business?
With Netflix’s announcement about being more creator-forward, we have to be prepared to give creators that time to find their feet and their series. Of course this may mean more underwhelming first seasons to come, but if we don’t give new writers and artists a chance, we may be really screwing ourselves out of something great. Netflix recently announced that Season 2 will arrive this fall, so now might be the best time to get in on the ground floor before it arrives.
So no, DISENCHANTMENT isn’t THE SIMPSONS or FUTURAMA. It’s not supposed to be. Give it a chance.