Friday, August 17, 2018

REVIEW: Netflix's 'Disenchantment' - Season 1

Netflix's Disenchantment debut its 10-episode first season on Friday, July 27. This post will feature brief reviews of each episode of the season.

The animated comedy stars Abbi Jacobson, Nat Faxon, Eric André, John DiMaggio, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, David Herman, Matt Berry, Jeny Batten, Rich Fulcher, Noel Fielding and Lucy Montgomery.

101. "A Princess, an Elf and a Demon Walk into a Bar"
Written by Matt Groening & Josh Weinstein and directed by Dwayne Carey-Hill

This is very mush a premise pilot establishing the basic function and idea of the show. It mixes medieval with the fantasy while setting a trio of characters off on an adventure together. Of course, the premiere has a lot of work it needs to do upfront. But this also feels like an episode that simply has too much padded out because Netflix allows the episodes to run at 35 minutes. There's no reason this premiere should have been that long. As such, that possibly signals some more difficulties in translating the talents of the creative team to a streaming service. Moreover, there isn't a whole lot of funny material throughout this opening episode. It's just establishing the premise of the show. And so, Bean is a hard-drinking princess who doesn't want to be married to form a political alliance; Elfo is an elf who wishes to explore the outside world and experience different emotions other than happiness; and Luci is a personal demon who has been attached to Bean for some reason. It's all about Bean being the center of the show with Elfo and Luci being the angel and devil on her shoulders. That's basically what the show is. Yes, there is also the sense that Bean and Elfo yearn for what the other has. Bean wants to live in a happy land where peace is everything she wants for her life instead of the horrific traditions forced onto her. Meanwhile, Elfo lives in a happy utopia but doesn't just want to be happy all of the time. Of course, Elfo is a pretty amusing character right out of the gate. And yet, there is the awkwardness from him being defined so much as a sexual creature. He is almost hanged because he was caught in bed with Kissy and he immediately has an attraction to Bean. That's creepy and unnecessary. It's also awkward because Elfo serves as the audience surrogate. He doesn't know anything about this war and thus needs it explained to him. Sure, that's mostly articulated here through him being clueless about war. He proves himself to be a dangerous individual being able to blind a giant. That is bound to be an ongoing threat. But again, it's difficult to be amused by Elfo's obliviousness to the world when he's also completely pining after Bean. Moreover, it's just lame that the show chooses to end its premiere on the cliffhanger that the core trio are falling off a cliff to their deaths below. That's not going to happen and the resolution better be hilarious. Otherwise, it will be completely useless. C

102. "For Whom the Pig Oinks"
Written by David X. Cohen and directed by Frank Marino

The show is very scattered with its stories. First off, the cliffhanger needs to be resolved right away. It's a pretty lame explanation as well with Merkimer breaking Bean's fall because he somehow got to the ground before her. That happens despite his troops also engaging in a fight with the blind giant. That doesn't make any logical sense at all. And yes, animated comedies don't need to abide by some larger understanding of physics. But the lack of a solid joke really makes this moment land with a thud. It also means that quickly after running away from her wedding Bean is right back at the altar and the same predicament. Except she isn't. This time she is allowed to spent more time with her fiancé. She is even allowed to set up a bachelor party for him in the hopes that he will fall victim to the mermaids at sea and their tantalizing songs. That's a joke mostly building to the reveal that mermaids are actually walruses and Merkimer had sex with all of them before being able to save the day when the ship gets attacked by an incoming army. Of course, that too is complicated because Merkimer kills allies of Dreamland instead of enemies. But that's not too big of a point right now. It mostly just seems like a lot of things are happening but there really isn't some grand character understanding or motivation behind it. Even the big decision by King Zøg in the end seems to come out of nowhere. Bean is horrified at the prospect of marrying a pig after Merkimer is transformed after drinking pig's blood mixed with Elfo's. And then, the King becomes entirely compassionate to the issues that his daughter raises. As such, he allows her to call off this marriage. That, in turn, destroys this potential alliance. But that also is not a big deal. It just means a shirtless fight between the kings who are eager to prove their strength despite their aging bodies. That appears to be a major concern for the king. He wants to tap into the potential of elf's blood and its magical properties. But right now, that is mostly just good for a couple of jokes about a single droplet being able to kill someone. Again, the show is incredibly scattered and doesn't really know what it wants to be doing with its overall story and characters. C+

103. "The Princess of Darkness"
Written by Rich Fulcher and directed by Wes Archer

This is a step in the right direction for Disenchantment ever though the overall message continues to be too muddled. Right now, it's basically saying that Luci is the only reason why anyone is having fun in this world. That doesn't seem all that accurate because Bean was causing chaos and having fun long before she was cursed with a demon. Similarly, Elfo is able to get into lots of fun and dangerous situations. He's not simply the flower picking elf who doesn't know how to have a good time. But that's the explanation given so that Bean and Elfo feel compelled to save Luci even though he is the demon encouraging them to do so many bad things. That occurs mostly to keep the overall mystery of what's going on with this curse going. The mystics are still keeping a close look on Bean and commenting on how quickly she is progressing for whatever they have planned. Meanwhile, the King is just worried that his daughter is too rambunctious. That makes him perfectly susceptible to the idea that she needs to be fixed because she has a demon inside of her. Yes, that is technically true. But it's also completely ridiculous as are the various ways that the world tries to exorcise the demon from her. The exorcist is more than willing to burn Bean alive in order to rid her of this demon. That proves that he is mostly just interested in ridding the world of evil instead of trying to protect the good. He doesn't care what happens to Bean. He just wants to throw demons into the nearby volcano. That story allows the final third of the episode to have a real electric spark to it. It's Bean and Elfo racing to save their friend even though he's such a bad influence for both of them. That could represent a significant problem for the show as it continues. It's unclear how Luci can grow as a character while still being the devil who is constantly suggesting bad things for the trio to do. He delights in making others suffer and encourages drinking and destructive acts. Again, that can be amusing. But it will grow lame and formulaic if it doesn't become something more as well. Right now, the bond has been established amongst the characters. As such, the time has come to really put the pressure on them so they have to make the decisions about what they truly want in this world. They need to start having some forward momentum in their stories even if the world wants them to conform to such specific traditions that only make them feel inferior and non-existent. B-

104. "Castle Party Massacre"
Written by Jeff Rowe and directed by David D. Au

One character having an extreme sexual attraction to another who is completely oblivious to it has become such an obnoxious and lazy trope. It's a story that just never works. Romance between characters is only effective if both are well-rounded and fully realized individuals. A relationship can't be the sole thing that defines them in the story. Nor can their pursuit of such a dynamic. That only makes them come across as creepy. Elfo has had some amusing moments. But he becomes such a problematic monster here because he is solely motivated by trying to seduce Bean. The show even gives him a somewhat happy ending too with the two of them enjoying the sun rise together (and with Luci too). But it's so despicable to see how controlling the men are in Bean's life. They contribute to her self-destructive tendencies. And yet, the show only wants to explore things on the surface level. It does form the connection between Elfo and King Zøg regarding their feelings towards Bean not being allowed to be a sexually adventurous woman. The show believes it's funny to watch these two guys continually get in the way of her achieving her goals. Sure, it's such a simplistic desire for Bean as well that only becomes interesting in the moment where she really just wants to dance with someone at her party. But it's such an ordinary story that has been done a million times without the show finding a new spin on it. It again seems like the show has no firm grasp on what it is aspiring to do with the story as well. It's mostly just amusing that things never work out the way that the characters planned. Instead of Bean having sex with a viking, she finds herself having to defend Dreamland from an invasion. She succeeds in that endeavor. That proves that she'll be just as effective a ruler as her father. But it again just breezes past the impact of her sending so many soldiers to their deaths. This is a show that is so casually lethal. That's the grand point it is making about this setting and the traditions upheld by the people in power. But it's also a joke that loses its power over time as well. The show has to keep finding a new spin on it. It can't just be the characters remaining blissfully ignorant about how lethal their actions can be in this world. That's just completely lackluster. C

105. "Faster, Princess! Kill! Kill!"
Written by Reid Harrison and directed by Ira Sherak

This has always been a casually lethal show. There have been so many people who have died for the purpose of the story or a joke. The show isn't saying that Bean herself is a murderer who goes around Dreamland purposefully killing people. But she has also killed a lot of people. Well, her former fiancé may still be clinging to life on that pile of swords. As such, it's fascinating to tell a story where she becomes the apprentice to the executioner. It turns out she is capable of torturing someone very well. She just has to be very indecisive. That's the way she does it instead of doing bodily harm. Again, she takes no pleasure out of that. She doesn't want to get up on the platform and behead someone in front of the entire city. That's the position she finds herself in though because she believes she's a screw up with every other job out there. She's a loser with no purpose or direction in her life. And now, the show allows her to get out of this moment. The witch accused of some vicious crimes is actually innocent. She just had a curse on her that meant she could do nothing but cackle. It also allows a fun inverse of the Hansel and Gretel story where they are the monsters who enjoy eating people. But again, that just casually builds to a moment where Bean kills people and still sees it as self-defense. This still highlights the dangerous and lethal world that these characters live in. And yet, it's still a joke that could wear thin very quickly over time. The show has to find new and imaginative ways to kill people. Here, it's fun to think of this candy being sharpened into a blade strong off to essentially operate as an ax for beheading. That's what allows this story to be more effective. Of course, it also includes the idea of Elfo being treated as a baby or toddler. Now, that may be an easy comparison because he's still so naive to the world and is the same size. And yet, the show has also positioned him as a sexual individual. And so, it's just plain creepy to suggest that someone so completely lusting after Bean can also be viewed as nothing more than a child who needs someone to take care of him. That's just a parallel that doesn't sit well and is especially awkward when viewers are binge watching the episodes in a short amount of time. Also, all of the time spent in the convent at the start of the episode felt rushed and underdeveloped. It had a solid idea but just no story or purpose to it. B-

106. "Swamp and Circumstance"
Written by Eric Horsted and directed by Albert Calleros

This episode certainly presents an interesting question for the main protagonist. Is Bean capable of pulling herself together and representing her country when the situation calls for it? Or is she just a perpetual drunk who messes up everything simply for being involved? She certainly has a bad influence in Luci who continues to corrupt her by pushing her to drink and do so many bad things. The show has somewhat lost the plot of his importance in the narrative and those mysterious individuals who want to corrupt her in this way. But it's much more personal here because it's clear that Bean wants these responsibilities and a chance to impress her father. She is so comfortable just drinking at the bar and mocking her father. But she wants his respect as well. She wants a chance to prove that she can be the leader of this kingdom. She is certainly more impressive as the ambassador to Dankmire right away. She is actually courteous and complimentary. King Zøg doesn't really show much interest in anything even though the relations between the two countries is very precarious. It will be interesting to see if the war between the two countries becomes an ongoing story for the show. There haven't been a whole lot of stories that carry over amongst the episodes. Sure, the King is still interested in Elfo's blood and everyone refers to Luci as a cat. But that's about it. Here, it's mostly just amusing and empowering to watch as Bean is able to adapt to her surroundings better than anyone else. That gives her agency and importance in the narrative. This is a fine showcase for her that shows she is capable of doing so much more. It's still absolutely defeating when she shows up drunk to the dinner and ends up flashing the entire room of politicians. But she is also the one who is able to save the day. She rescues her father and half-brother from the swamp monster and those who wish to feed them to the creature. She does so mostly by connecting with them on a human level. But she also just has the strength to fight this beast. That's very impressive. This entire journey in fact is very mesmerizing to watch from a directing perspective. That has been one of the most notable aspects of the show. This episode could be a building block for so much more. It at least offers some hope of things becoming better between Bean and her father. B

107. "Love's Tender Rampage"
Written by Jeny Batten & M. Dickson and directed by Peter Avanzino

Tess has the potential to be a breakout character for the show. She is just such a fun inclusion here. She is able to come in and perfectly tear everything about the characters apart. She subverts the expectations of what giants are suppose to be in fantasy storytelling. She doesn't want to be seen as a monster. She is simply a grad student who doesn't know how to put out a fire. Sure, there is absolutely no reason why she should return to Dreamland. She sees everyone as dick who is entirely too selfish and destructive to do anything genuinely for another person. This is a kingdom that deserves every horrible thing that happens to it. She also sees the sad life that Bean has. That could pull her back into this world. But that seems incredibly unlikely. She is only introduced in the first place because of an elaborate lie that plays into an annoying storytelling trope. She is nothing more than a fake girlfriend come to life and Elfo flailing around trying to keep the lie going. It's a story that has been told so many times. There really isn't a new spin on it here either. It's once again an excuse for Elfo to continue denying his feelings for Bean. But it's also so unclear what the show wants the audience to view this dynamic as. It's clearly a will-they?/won't-they? setup. But it's annoying because it defines so much about who they are in the context of the show. There is even the empty tease that something monumental happens here. But that too is quickly taken away. Elfo is able to back away from the kiss he goes in for when he believes they are about to die in the plague pit. And then, Bean's kiss at the end is explained away as simply being a drug-induced hallucination. Now, the drugs are a solid comedic payoff at the end of the episode. It connects the two disparate stories together quite well. This is a show that could have so much fun just producing an episode with Bean high on drugs. The minor glimpse we get is amusing. It's not the most visually dazzling sequence the show has produced though. And again, everything quickly reverts back to normal for the main characters. So, it's unlikely that anything will change or anyone will learn anything from this whole experience. B-

108. "The Limits of Immortality"
Written by Patric Verrone and directed by Brian Sheesley

The show was released with the tease that it would be more serialized than Matt Groening's previous animated creations. And yet, the actual episodes really haven't expanded upon that idea. They always have to revert back to the natural premise of misadventures happening in Dreamland. It's been more episodic which isn't bad in the slightest. In fact, Netflix is mostly criticized because its shows are too serialized. And now, it's clear that the end of the season is planning on actually setting some stuff up. That happens here with the search for the pendant that can allow King Zøg to obtain the elixir of life. That's his sole motivation for everything. He wants to be immortal. There's no grand reasoning behind it though. It's much more fascinating watching as Sorcerio panics with Odval about being unable to use the elf's blood in the way that the king demands. But that also allows the show to tie in some of the various adventures of the previous episodes in order to try connecting everything together. It's amusing to think that the witches from earlier have the necessary information while a joke is made about the lost kingdom throwing a party when their king is away. They are amusing because the audience has already sit through those episodes and understands the mistakes Bean has made along the way. Now, she's simply trying to rescue her friend. That's all Elfo needs to be in this situation as well. The show doesn't need to address their awkward, drug-infused kiss. In fact, it's more unexpected and surprising to watch as the team becomes friends with a griffin while being shocked by the return of the exorcist. He is also after the elixir of life and wants revenge for losing a hand. Sure, it's a convenient way to explain that Bean and company didn't kill another recurring character. In fact, it may be a running joke that people who Bean believes she has killed are not actually dead after all - her first fiancé, the witch's twin, the exorcist, etc. Of course, she still desires to bury the exorcist alive so that she and her friends can survive. But it's such a thrilling moment as well that is able to move so swiftly with a strong sense of forward momentum. That's a quality that has been absent from the season so far. But now, there is bound to be a huge conflict with the king finally getting what he wants from Elfo with the mystics looking on coming close to destroying all of Dreamland by corrupting Bean. B+

109. "To Thine Own Elf Be True"
Written by Shion Takeuchi and directed by Frank Marino

Has the show earned the emotions it is reaching for at the conclusion of this episode? It presents a choice for Bean where she can either resurrect her mother or Elfo. It's presented as an agonizing choice because she truly believes to be responsible for both of their deaths. Of course, that's not really the case. Her father is more to blame because of his selfish decisions and abrasive reign as king. It almost felt inevitable that she would revive Elfo simply because he has been the more important character for the season. The show has barely spent any time talking about Bean's mother other than to say that she was dead. That was a formative moment for both Bean and Zøg. But Elfo has actually been a character for nine episodes now. Plus, this episode introduces the idea that he's not an elf at all. As such, his blood can't fuel the pendant that will give a person immortality. At first, that presents as nothing more than a plot complication to introduce a new journey for the main characters. And yes, it is meaningful that Elfo returns to Elfwood in search of answers. But the show is choosing to be withholding of them. His father only tells him that he is half-elf. The subsequent battle ensures that he doesn't learn who his mother was other than a tall woman. As such, it's set up as this ongoing mystery for Elfo. And yet, he can't find answers in that regard and the audience shouldn't care if he dies in the final act of the story. That's what made it seem likely that Bean would save her friend instead of her mother. She didn't even know that she was responsible for her mother being turned to stone. That burden is immediately felt and that's what fuels her final decision. She sees the value in trying to make things right and hopefully having a good influence as a parent for once. It should definitely be interesting to see what Bean's mother is like considering both Bean and Zøg idolize her. But it still feels inevitable that Elfo will be revived somehow. But again, the audience has to question if the show has earned these emotions. It spent most of the season being episodic only to take this pivot into the emotional and overarching storytelling at the end of the run. There have certainly been moments that have been successful. But right now, it still mostly feels like setup for the finale with that episode probably finding some resolution to these lingering issues as well. B

110. "Dreamland Falls"
Written by Bill Oakley and directed by Wes Archer

It really did take this season too long to start coming together in a meaningful way that made the show feel distinctive. These final few episodes really started a nice uptick in quality even though they didn't resolve everything that had been set up over the course of the season. As such, that should worry the audience that the show is playing things for the long game instead of trying to tell stories that are contained to one specific season. As such, there is no resolution to the mystics who cursed Bean with Luci. In fact, they aren't even seen in this finale at all. Instead, this episode is all about Queen Dagmar being revived and everyone adjusting to her being back in the castle. Sure, it also delves into Elfo's funeral. He actually stays dead as well. It's easy to assume that magic will revive him at some point. But the show isn't racing to make that happen. Even when both his body and Bean end up in the nearby water, they don't magically run into each other again. Instead, his death is used to motivate Bean as she turns against her father and embraces her mother. The twist that Dagmar is the one truly threatening the kingdom isn't all that surprising. Moreover, it's clear that the show is continuing to set up things that will likely help rescue the kingdom in the long run with Queen Oona disappearing and conspiring with Odval. Right now though, it's the personal dynamics of Bean, Zøg and Dagmar that carry this final chapter of the story. Yes, it feels like Dagmar is doing nothing but making vague pronouncements about the grand importance that Bean has in the overall story especially with some great dark threat looming over the kingdom. This is a plan Dagmar tried to set into motion 15 years ago before she was turned into stone. As such, the threat to Dreamland can't be coming too quickly. In fact, she seems like the most dangerous person to the kingdom. She turns everyone to stone except for Zøg and Luci. In fact, Luci is the demon who is able to figure all of this out even though Zøg isn't enough of a warrior to stop his greatest love. He now sees her for what she truly is. And yet, the show isn't giving the audience any clarity. It's also setting up the same twist with Bean that it did with Elfo in that there is something wonderful and hidden about their identities that is just waiting to be exposed. That's a twist that works once but may not work for two of the major characters. That can't be the sole thing that defines their evolution moving forward. But those are still worries for the future with this being an intense but promising finale. B