It’s difficult to go into Disenchantment without preconceived notions. Groening’s third major “TV” project (quotes because it’s on Netflix), immediately feels like it could just as well be the fantasy setting for an excursion by the poorly aging nuclear family from the Simpsons, or a wacky misadventure by the delivery crew from New York, 3000 AD.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that while I enjoy the comedy of The Simpsons and Futurama, I love when these shows manage to evoke a full range of emotions thanks to how connected to the characters you may not have realized you were (Jurassic Bark, The Luck of the Fryish, and Lisa’s substitute come readily to mind).
Disenchantment is no cheap genre shift for the same humor we’ve seen in these two prior projects. Pretty early on, I became aware that for all the jokes I was enjoying there were hardly any pop culture references, Disenchantment does lean on broad conceptions of the fantasy and fairy tale genre, sure, but there’s no winking references to Elijah Wood or Peter Jackson to be found.
What Groening displays here that really elevates the show is patience. All the episodes I mentioned two paragraphs prior were from second seasons onward in their respective shows. Groening is taking time to let us become friends with Bean, Elfo, and Luci. The moment this became clear to me? When I realized I love Elfo (who feels like a fleshed out, fantasy Gil from The Simpsons with the relentless optimism of a Carebear- trust me, it works), even though I thought I’d gone in expecting to adore Eric Andre’s demon, Luci.
It’s fun, and it’s goofy, and in true Groening fashion a lot of the jokes are very accessible with the occasional sly philosophical allusion, but the jokes and rate of delivery ramp up because so many of them are character driven. The more we get to know Luci, Elfo, Bean, and her father the more the jokes keep coming, especially as (unlike Simpsons and Futurama), a broader plot unfolds over the course of the season.
I’d spend some time going into how wonderful a character Bean is (basically Leela mixed with college age Homer Simpson and given a tiara she doesn’t want), but Groening has long displayed a deftness for illustrating and bringing to life female characters with plenty of agency and depth. It’s almost unfair to say, but I think it’s an achievement that Bean is par for the course with his history of strong women like Lisa, Marge, Leela, Amy, and more.
Long story short, this is a special show. Groening is showing an uncommon understanding for his first foray in the bingeable, streaming landscape, but still measuring restraint within the medium to take advantage of a world that’s as big as he wants it to be (just like the universe in Futurama or the vague city limits of Springfield, USA), with characters as deep as the world is broad who I’d gladly grab a drink with, even if it’s entirely likely I’d end up with a dagger in my back.
And it’s funny.