Wednesday, August 15, 2018

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Disenchantment'

Netflix will debut its new original animated comedy series Disenchantment on Friday, August 17. The comedy stars Abbi Jacobson, Nat Faxon, Eric Andre, John DiMaggio, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, David Herman, Matt Berry, Jeny Batten, Rich Fulcher, Noel Fielding and Lucy Montgomery.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its first seven episodes.

Adult animated comedies are seeing such a strong boom at the moment. It's all because of the new streaming frontier as well. Netflix, Amazon and Apple all want the next big hit in this genre. Over the next month or so, Netflix has a couple of big launches in animation - headlined by the returns of BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth with the series debuts of Disenchantment and Paradise PD. Sure, the Emmys have yet to recognize the sudden shift in this industry where the streaming services are providing more original material and opportunities to the storytellers in this field. But that's bound to change sooner rather than later. With all of that being said, Disenchantment is only the third series that Matt Groening has created in his expansive career. Some could be worried about this being his first new show since 1999. And yet, audiences have to look at the successful runs of The Simpsons on FOX and Futurama on FOX and Comedy Central as all the proof needed that Groening can deliver a hit in this genre. He is easily a content creator Netflix would like to be in business with. When the series pickup was announced for Disenchantment, it came with a two season order. As such, there is already the confirmation that the show will return with another batch of episodes a year from now. That should give audiences the support they need to sample this new show and see if it's a new world that they would like to spend time in. For fans of Groening's past shows, Disenchantment offers the same visual style and storytelling tendencies. That could be very comforting. But it's also clear that the freedom of Netflix is allowing him to expand on his ideas and do more than what he's been capable of doing on broadcast or cable. That's very exciting.

Disenchantment sets out to tell a subversive story set in the past just like Futurama did for the future. Of course, it's more than just a historical animated series as well. It is basically merging the ideas and settings of medieval times, fantasy and fairy tales. It's set in a mystical kingdom named Dreamland. It's your typical monarchy with a ruling family that comprises an abrasive and lazy king, an odd stepmother and a rambunctious princess named Bean. Now, Bean is the central protagonist of the series. She is voiced by Broad City star Abbi Jacobson, not doing a whole lot of work to alter her vocal performance from that show all that much. She is essentially a loser who just goes out drinking and causing mayhem all of the time. She is made to feel useless by the rest of her family. But she also sees nothing in the world that she is genuinely good at. Most of the time she just fails because she would rather be drunk than work too hard. The series follows her misadventures in the kingdom as she is soon joined by a personal demon, Luci (Eric Andre), gifted to her under mysterious circumstances, and an elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon), who may or may not have magical qualities. Luci and Elfo basically function as the angel and devil on her shoulders persuading her what to do in any given situation. Of course, Luci has been to Hell and can make a bunch of jokes about how torturous that place can be. Meanwhile, Elfo comes from a separate realm where all the elves live in perfect happiness. He leaves because he wants more out of life. Namely, he doesn't want to be happy all of the time. That makes him a perfect companion for Bean because she wants to be more in control of her own fate even though her life is such a disaster at the moment.

Disenchantment is also a visually stunning show. The animation is exquisite and quite expansive. The scope is widen more than The Simpsons or Futurama could do. I'm eager to watch the show on a high-definition television instead of on the Netflix screening site. But even in that form, this is a visually pleasing show with a bunch of bold colors and dimension that really allows the viewers to feel like we are once again transported to a different world. Plus, the show does so much to actually push the boundaries of the crazy situations that Bean and company get themselves into. They run into so many different creatures over the course of these episodes. Sometimes, they are dealing with mermaids, vikings or giants. Other times, they find themselves in a twisted inverse of the classic Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. The show definitely has the ambition to tell a bunch of different stories from competing genres and make them all feel like they belong in the same world. It even allows the show to have a meta line about it being difficult to track what all is possible here with all of the "magic and curses." All of this makes the show quite episodic which is always a welcome change of pace in the streaming world. However, it also feels like there is always a status quo the show needs to reset at the end of each episode. There is the suggestion in the early going that it is going to be more serialized that Groening's other shows. Across seven episodes though, that has yet to really be seen even though there are a couple of cliffhangers. Moreover, the show has mostly lost the thread on the overarching plot after awhile. And so, it's mostly a story interested in the moment.

Fantastic visuals can't overcompensate when there is a lackluster story though. Right now, the specific plots and characterizations are incredibly thin and not all that funny. That's such a huge issue. Yes, it's important to point out that The Simpsons and Futurama weren't fully formed in the beginning of their runs either. But they had the time to grow and develop into hit shows. Netflix has already given Disenchantment that luxury thanks to the two-season pickup. And yet, it'll be fascinating to see how many people will sit through some long episodes in the hopes that it will all get better in time. After seven episodes, that significant uptick in quality hasn't happened yet. It still mostly feels like a show made by a creative team still learning the ins and outs of making a streaming show. Yes, they have the freedom to let episodes run as long as they would like. However, some restrictions would really be good. The premiere is 35 minutes long and has absolutely no business being that length. In fact, it would have been funnier and more concise with the setup of its story if it cut around 10 minutes of plot out. Plus, the premiere is clearly setting up one version of this story where Bean is fighting against an arranged marriage and may have to go on the run even though the second episode quickly reverses that to ensure that she is always stuck in this kingdom and interacting with her family. The show is slightly better when the episodes are just running at 27 minutes. But even with that expanded running time, the characters aren't getting any more meaningful development. The three leads basically just hit the same plot beats over and over again. And they aren't all that interesting to begin with. As such, it's hard to give the show a whole lot of leeway in figuring out the message that it is actually trying to send with its subversion of a particular mix of genres.

It's mostly up to the voice cast to actually get any laughs at all. Even then, there isn't really any moment in these seven episodes where I was actually laughing out loud. At times, some situations are amusing. But the show is mostly a delight when it comes to the visuals and not because of its joke or story construction. Nat Faxon is easily giving the best vocal performance as Elfo. But the character is simultaneously amusing and problematic. He's strong and distinctive because he has been completely sheltered from this world and doesn't fully understand the horrors that surround him. But he's incredibly frustrating because he also has an unrequited sexual attraction to Bean which is so one-dimensional and sometimes very all-consuming of the character. The show is trying to establish a will-they?/won't-they? dynamic and it falls completely flat. As such, some episodes are very agonizing to sit through because they are simply plot dynamics that are so played out and have been done to death. The show would like to present itself as a feminist story in medieval times. And yet, it's still clear that the male perspective is driving so much of the actual foundation of the show. It's so unclear what the show actually wants to be doing with Bean as a rambunctious princess who doesn't fall into line. That is a solid hook for a series. But again, the show just has absolutely no idea what to do with it or make a larger point about feminism in both this specific world and the real one.