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Disenchantment review: Groening’s new Netflix toon is off to a bloody good start

Enlarge / On Disenchantment, plague happens.

The Simpsons meets Game of Thrones” sounds like one of those Netflix ideas generated by bots (a tactic that Netflix has employed in the past). That kind of experiment, as cute as it sounds at first blush, could flop if it stitches two dissimilar series together in messy fashion. But the team behind Disenchantment, the first Matt Groening animated series since Futurama launched in 1999, seems blissfully unaware of hot TV trends—and is all the better for it.

Groening’s first-ever non-network series debuts on Netflix on August 17 as a 10-episode “half-season,” and we’ve reviewed seven of those episodes ahead of the formal launch. From what we’ve seen thus far, Disenchantment wins by establishing friendships between unique, likable characters—and then leading them to their basest urges.

Kneel before… Zog

The series revolves around Bean (Abbi Jacobson), a gambling, booze-chugging, ne’er-do-well princess from a medieval kingdom called Dreamland. (Between the rampant poverty and plague-ridden dead bodies, that name is clearly false advertising.) She’s set to be unhappily married off to a neighboring kingdom by her father King Zog (Futurama‘s John DiMaggio), but by chance, she meets two strange creatures—a tiny devil named Lucy (Eric Andre) and a happy-go-lucky elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon)—who help her bust out of matrimony’s shackles.

Though this intro hints to a world-spanning, new-realm-every-episode adventure in which Bean and her friends stay one step ahead of her father’s pursuing guards, the show quickly switches gears and returns to Dreamland. Yet this actually works out fine for the series, as Dreamland is rich with comedic opportunities, whether sourced from Zod’s slave-filled castle or the nearby, poverty-wrecked village. And should the cast need a comedic jumpstart, there’s always a wild mini-universe one short boat or horse ride away; in the first seven episodes alone, we stumble upon a nunnery, a swamp kingdom, and a psychedelic hookah lounge.

It doesn’t take long to establish each major character’s arc. Bean wants to cause trouble while still being respected by her father. Elfo wants to spread his naive brand of merriment while nursing a serious crush on Bean. Lucy is the literal devil on Bean’s shoulder, egging her on in wicked ways while simultaneously taunting Elfo. Zog just wants his kingdom to be rich and prestigious—and beheads or enslaves anyone who annoys him along the way.

Disenchantment‘s first major victory is its casting. All four leads nail their characters’ idiosyncrasies in ways that make them likable even at their most wicked. Jacobsen carries much of the show as the good-natured brat within us all—as close as any animated cartoon has ever come to replicating Bill Watterson’s Calvin—while Lucy and Elfo’s rivalry forces their actors to break out of one-dimensional, always-good or always-bad performances just often enough to make their performances enjoyably surprising. And DiMaggio plays the role of king like a salty Mets fan—one who just happens to run an entire kingdom’s guillotine—and his over-the-top penchant for violence and revenge fits neatly into the show’s bizarre proceedings.

Rated PG-10, maybe PG-11

Zog's unhappy family, including Bean's stepmom and half-brother.
Enlarge / Zog’s unhappy family, including Bean’s stepmom and half-brother.

The pilot episode is easily the strongest effort out of Camp Groening in years. It’s a rapid-fire blast through silly, memorable situations, like a chance encounter with a fairy streetwalker, awkward family “shrub” issues with medieval royalty, a mystical mentor in the clouds, and the dark underbelly of Elfo’s saccharine-sweet home village.

This first episode does a solid job of mining a new scene for humor, then discarding it and moving on instead of beating a joke to death. (Instead, it quite literally sends jokes to the dungeon.) This, and many of the episodes that follow, come packed with enough sight gags, pun-filled signs, hilariously timed dialogue, and tee-hee innuendo to remind viewers of their favorite Simpsons or Futurama eras.

That “tee-hee” part is crucial. Disenchantment does not indulge in any vulgarity, nudity, gratuitous violence, or other FCC-enraging practices. The show still has a bit of a “Netflix-exclusive” edge, as beer flows like wine, sex is regularly hinted at, and limbs get chopped off from time to time. But at worst, this series draws its seediest elements through a decidedly Looney Toons lens. The show’s handlers let innuendo and suggestive jokes do the dirty work, instead, and the restraint does the show a lot of favors.

The result is a darned good series to watch alongside kids ages, eh, 11-and-up, give-or-take. Hilariously goofy art and dorky, cartoony shouts are often paired with higher-level, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes about how destitute and slave-fueled the Dark Ages really were. One example of this deft highbrow/lowbrow split: halfway through one episode, an ogre starts to sniffle only to sneeze an entire horse in sloppy fashion; the next minute, that well-intentioned ogre causes an accident, which elicits one angry townsperson to cry, “this validates my bigotry!”

The series’ first half-season hits a bit of a lull when its opening thrust—about a mysterious pair of dim-witted magicians plotting Bean’s demise—disappears for seemingly no reason. A couple of ho-hum, freak-of-the-week episodes break up the series’ running plot in favor of some predictable love-triangle woes between Elfo and Bean. But even at its slowest, Disenchantment avoids trying to cash in on cheap, topical jokes or series-specific satire. You won’t see Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings scenes copied wholesale; instead, the series knowingly winks at those worlds’ tropes, along with their real-life corollaries.