For many years, the popular concept of fantasy was basically medieval England but with some with magical creatures thrown in, often with dwarves, elves and the like. Such swords-and-sorcery is, now, a bit of a cliché, left in the realms of 1990s straight-to-video movies and the ever-popular RPG Dungeons and Dragons. Such tropes feel uninventive these days, which is why the jokes and setting of Matt Groening’s latest, Disenchantment, come across as dreadfully passé at first glance. Mocking princesses, castles and elves feels very Shrek.
Background signs advertising shops such as “Barns for Nobles” elicit an initial snigger, but you wonder if a show can sustain such winking punnery. Sight gags may work in a Wallace and Gromit short, but if you’re after a series with the same legacy as peak Simpsons or as quotably funny as Futurama, you need a core concept that’s a little more substantial. The first couple of episodes of Disenchantment are fitfully amusing, but feel a bit, at times, like the rejected joke pile from the writers’ room of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Fear not, however. Once the Netflix series has found its feet and established the central trio – the rebellious princess, Bean, her personal demon, Luci, and an optimistic elf, named Elfo – as well as their core dynamic, Disenchantment begins to become something much funnier than its premise suggests. There’s scope for emotional beats, as the three of them bond in their outsider status, but that temptation has mostly been resisted so far, in favour of something more scathing and humorous. It’s pleasingly weird, too, with voice contributions from established British oddballs, such as Matt Berry and Noel Fielding.
Matt Groening’s fingerprints are all over Disenchantment. A lead character who drinks a lot? Check. John DiMaggio and Tress MacNeille? Check. Characters with overbites? Check. There’s a feeling that he’s pushing into darker territory, promising violence and death in almost every episode. One of the highlights of Season 1 – Faster, Princess, Kill! Kill! – ends with a comically grotesque murder. This is where the setting ends up working for Groening; in a world where death is a normal part of everyday life, the shenanigans of his lead characters can end up with real consequences. With a wide fantasy world to explore, here’s hoping that Groening and his team can create something as hilarious as Amazon Women in the Mood or Deep Space Homer.
Disenchantment needs time to develop into something truly special. Many of the best TV comedies take a while to create affection for the wider cast of characters. The Simpsons wasn’t just funny because Homer’s a drunken idiot, it was hilarious because it created a world full of memorable secondary characters. Groening’s latest is, judging by the episodes made available to review, hit and miss, but it’s amusing enough to keep you watching and promises something far greater down the line. It has all the right ingredients for something magical.
Disenchantment: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.