Disenchantment doesn’t work, and the reason is tied into what made Futurama so great. The relationship between Matt Groening’s latest Netflix show and his previous efforts is a strange one. On the one hand, his involvement, idea approach and animation style is the real reason for anyone to prioritize checking out the series. On the other, it’s a very different sort of show, coming almost 30 years after The Simpsons and debuting on a streaming service; many defenders have been keen to argue they shouldn’t be compared, but that’s foolhardy and misses the key problem.
It’s easy to describe Disenchantment as Futurama but fantasy, which is somewhat reductive yet also incredibly accurate. It’s set in a genre distillation world centering on a trio of heavy drinking, brash archetypes forced together and slowly finding a shared affection. The callouts to pop culture are both overt and carefully integrated, with a low entry-level but high-bar for full appreciation. Yet it’s in deeper ways – storytelling and character – that Disenchantment tries to become so like Futurama, and the quality gulf between the two is incredibly overt.
To be clear, Disenchantment isn’t necessarily a bad TV show. It has some great voice actors (although many are replaying what we’ve heard before) and some of its more risque flirtations lead to fresh laughs. However, it has major inconsistencies in its characters and narrative pace, both of which are direct extensions – and misunderstandings – of what’s worked before.
- This Page: The Problem With Disenchantment’s Characters
- Page 2: The Problem With Disenchantment’s Narrative
Disenchantment’s Ill-Defined Characters Are Too Old-Fashioned For Netflix
Both Futurama and The Simpsons started out slow. Their first seasons are still enjoyable, but the stone-cold classic episodes come later, starting around seasons 2/3; there was some teething in defining the central characters and tone. This was, really, a product of the time. Traditional network airing, long episode runs, and the expectation that an audience wouldn’t see every episode allowed and encouraged development as the show went. This conversely leads to more episodic, status quo-style series and an element of hit-and-miss storytelling, but that’s how TV was for much of its life and provided a godsend for creators who want to produce reactive series.
Homer started out as a well-meaning, mildly doofus American father, but over time the writers began to fit the voice and pushed him to be stupider (eventually too far, transforming into what’s known as “Jerkass Homer”). You can also see this with Futurama, where the softer sides of Fry, Leela and Bender grew out of the broad characters introduced the pilot; most importantly for this discussion, the budding romance between the former two slowly emerged organically over a course of years.
Disenchantment is a streaming show in a different era. Nowadays, audiences are more acceptant of serialized TV and expect to watch episodes in order with a sense of completionism. This allows bigger scale storytelling but also means that there’s less leeway in varied, on-screen development. And here’s the problem: Disenchantment has one foot firmly in the past, at once trying to tell an overarching story – after a two-part premiere, the show falls into an episodic run but where each story feeds into the wider arc, often in very subtle ways – yet still feeling its way along in defining its characters. The result is a story where you don’t know the players well enough to follow.
Bean, Luci and Elfo all change over the course of season 1, but more often at the whim of Disenchantment‘s writers than narrative. Whereas Futurama spent years refining its core trio, by premiering in 2018 Disenchantment needs to do it in five hours… and just doesn’t. You can see this most pointedly with Bean and Elfo’s relationship. He’s smitten with her from the start yet it’s unclear why, and her affection flip-flops to the point the show even has to point out they’ve only known each other a few months. There’s no sense of character development, so when we get to Bean deciding whether to save her mother or Elfo it’s done with no concrete understanding of their relationship.
Character was the defining success point of The Simpsons and Futurama, and Disenchantment knows that. It tries incredibly hard to get its cast to a position similar to those shows in their heyday, but despite skipping seasons of development still goes about it with the same method.
Although if we’re talking about over-learning and leaning on the wrong lessons, the bigger issue is narrative.
Page 2 of 2: The Problem With Disenchantment’s Narrative
Disenchantment Completely Fumbles Futurama’s Deft Narrative Style
As already established, Disenchantment is and isn’t serialized. It ostensibly follows a traditional episodic structure but, especially as it goes on, aims to tell a multi-part story. That’s pretty standard for Peak TV, but again it’s executed in an old fashion.
The most intelligent moment in Futurama‘s pilot is the brief shot of Nibbler’s silhouette as Fry falls into the cryo tube, a tease of his involvement in the protagonist’s freezing finally explained (after further teasing) in season 4’s astounding “The Why of Fry”: Fry being his own grandfather (“Roswell That Ends Well”) meant he lacked a specific brainwave (“The Day The Earth Stood Stupid”), and was thus the only person who could possibly beat the Brains. It was the payoff of a subtle clue that took place over years. And while it’s the biggest, it wasn’t the only one. Leela’s mutant parents were seen in the background of “I Second That Emotion” two years before their introduction in “Leela’s Homeworld”. TV movie Into The Wild Green Yonder centered on a cult of numbers seeded through recurring Easter Eggs throughout. It was a slow burn aspect, but Futurama‘s legacy hinges on how it crafted delated narratives across seasons without anybody realizing.
Disenchantment also tries to craft a grand narrative: Bean is part of a centuries-long conflict; Luci’s appearance is part of a grand plot; Elfo is only half-elf. Zog’s wife Dagmar is still alive; and so much more. Netflix’s press notes for the show detail each character, and despite just a couple of sentences for each one, half-a-dozen tease some greater secret prepped to be revealed: “there’s more to this character”, “they have an interesting secret”, “there’s more to them than meets the eye” etc. Mystery is ingrained in the show explicitly.
But all of this happens in the space of ten episodes and is overtly telegraphed. In a bid to expand Futurama‘s deft plotting to fit Peak TV’s serialization, all Disenchantment has really does is stretch and rush, and in the process they lose the biggest part of any twist: surprise. Something is highlighted as strange from the start, and so each turn means nothing. Worse, season 1 doesn’t even provide any resolution or actual twists – just further explicit suggestion that a twist is coming: we don’t find out Bean’s destiny, Luci’s purpose, or Elfo’s lineage. What we have is an overarching narrative that is entirely the tease and promise of eventual payoff. And when you’re doing this with ill-defined characters, that’s a problem.
Disenchantment Sees Matt Groening Fail To Evolve With The Times
Ultimately, Disenchantment‘s two core problems are direct extensions of what made Futurama work being misapplied to a new era of TV. As tough as it may be to say, it’s a show where the main message is that Matt Groening is now out of touch. The show is the product of many, many people (in fact, the opening credits for the first episode list a whopping 13 producers) but it bears all the weak spots that come from incorrectly replicating his previous successes and only due to the medium changing.
Right alongside Disenchantment on Netflix are animated shows like Bojack Horseman and Big Mouth; a cynical take on celebrity culture that deconstructs our view of depression and success, and a frank yet lewd presentation of the politics of puberty. Both are highly experimental shows that push the limits of animation – emotionally and acceptability respectively – and from their first episodes convey a very clear vision. They are made for modern audiences binging (indeed, they call out the new viewing culture) and take advantage of that.
Disenchantment is a Fox show of a decade or more ago that has been grafted onto the same model, and only the deficiencies come out. The Simpsons hasn’t been described as good this millennium, and Futurama‘s Comedy Central resurgence saw a distinct drop in quality. The basic Matt Groening style hasn’t produced a great season of television in over ten years, and with Disenchantment the inherent flaws are unavoidable.