When Matt Groening’s The Simpsons came about – first via a series of animated shorts on Fox’s The Tracy Ullman Show in 1987, then in the form of the Springfield family’s record breaking, genre-defining own series two years later – there was really nothing like it. It claimed to satirise blue collar America – and warmly, it did. But like a big yellow Trojan Horse invading the set of Roseanne, The Simpsons really was a vessel to take pot-shots at anything and everything Groening and his team wanted to. It got away with it because TV cartoons didn’t do that. Unless you knew, it was a kids show. At it’s peak, The Simpsons was painfully funny, yes, but it was also arguably the most subversive, smart, cool television ever created.
In 2009, Groening’s jaundiced baby surpassed the iconic US TV and radio drama Gunsmoke in the number of episodes broadcast and the length of time it had been on television. At the time of writing, 639 episodes have been shown. Next year, The Simpsons will celebrate its 30th birthday proper. Of course, like a latter-day Prince, or a millennial Bowie, critics have long proclaimed the show to be in artistic decline – in 2007, then showrunner Mike Scully, when asked how the series managed to maintain its longevity, said, largely in jest but dangerously close to the bone, “Lower your quality standards. Once you’ve done that you can go on forever.”
Yet 29 seasons in, The Simpsons is still within the best 10 things regularly on television. It can still be very funny. It can still take a mean pot shot. In fact, it’s still so culturally significant that a conversation about the show’s representation of minority groups, centring on the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and stoked by the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, has been one of the biggest pop culture debates of the last 12 months.
“It’s like the Apu controversy has neutered Groening’s voice”
Wherever you stand on said debate – and this writer would argue that unless you’re South Asian, your opinion really doesn’t matter – it did largely reinforce the view that the show that was always ahead of the cultural curve, was now hanging somewhere in the middle of its arch. In previous times, The Simpsons would have read the room long before the room raised some pretty valid concerns. Groening didn’t cover himself with glory, first by bemoaning, “it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended”, then by having Lisa – the character that’s specifically written to be the voice of intelligence, logic and reason! – break the fourth wall of the episode ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’ and say… well nothing really. There’s allegory for a bigger point in there.
It’s hard not to view Disenchantment, Groening’s first Netflix exclusive series through the lens of all the above. Because the problem with Disenchantment – a medieval fantasy in love with Game Of Thrones, Dungeons & Dragons, Fighting Fantasy, Monty Python and all similar lore – isn’t really a problem with Disenchantment at all.
If Disenchantment wasn’t a Groening product, if it wasn’t a descendent of The Simpsons, it would be viewed entirely differently. It’s really nice, warm television. It’s pleasant. It’s charming. Yet in an era where The Simpsons’ children are saying a lot – BoJack Horseman offers the best depiction of depression within all of television, South Park remains near or close to it’s acerbic, nihilistic best – Disenchantment has seemingly been designed to say as little as possible. It’s like the Apu controversy has neutered Groening’s voice.
At its best Disenchantment comes across like an extended episode of The Simpsons’ Treehouse Of Horror. Nothing emanating from its creators’ brain will ever arrive short of creativity and the world Disenchantment creates within the ten episodes currently available is one packed with interesting characters, as well as both cool details and knowing humour embedded within all of its crevices. It rewards repeated viewing; some dense scenes becoming like a Where’s Wally take on medieval mirth. But even the show’s core premise, the twist on the long-ingrained fantasy trope of a vulnerable princess waiting for a handsome prince (here, the princess – Bean, voiced by Broad City’s Abbie Jacobson – is a foulmouthed, rebel hearted, alcoholic shagger) never gets out of first gear. At some point Groening would have seen the potential to say things about feminism, gender, misogyny… Has he missed that? Is he scared to? Either way, it’s not here.
“What happens eight episodes in is quite extraordinary”
It’s true that Groening’s other post-Simpsons series, the sci-fi themed Futurama, took a while to ignite – not surprising when you enter the world under the sunlight blocking colossus of The Simpsons. Similarly to that show’s meek beginning, the biggest reason to stick with Disenchantment is that come episode eight, it comes alight. You’ve probably read some damming things about the series on the internet. Well, you should also know that the critics who wrote these things were only shown the first seven episodes. This is important to note, because what happens eight episodes in is quite extraordinary.
Disenchantment still doesn’t particularly find anything approaching bite or purpose, but it’s true that many of the frustrations of the preceding episodes are resolved with three to go. There is the introduction of peril. There is a constant narrative where previously the show had seemed undecided as to whether to stick or twist on embracing it’s episodic medium. Principally though, you realise that you like these characters and you want them to succeed. Basically, come episode eight, Disenchantment becomes about something, even if that something is just a cool story and not any of the Titanic zeitgeist-y expectation that a new cartoon from the creator of The Simpsons will have cast upon it.
Lop off the ‘dis’, take away the ‘ment’ – by the very end of its first run, Disenchantment becomes enchanting. Stick with it.