It’s probably safe to assume that passing fans of The Simpsons have given up on Disenchantment by now. Launched by Netflix in 2018, the animated fantasy sitcom has more in common with creator Matt Groening’s divisive second series, 1999’s Futurama, than it does with The Simpsons, meaning its audience looks less like the man on the street and more like the man at San Diego Comic Con.
But actually, Disenchantment begs not to be compared to The Simpsons or to Futurama but to Game Of Thrones instead. Here, we return to Dreamland following the events of season two, protagonist Princess Bean apparently burned as a witch but actually ensconced in underground caverns populated by hard working – and horny – little creatures called Trøgs.
Above ground, the duplicitous Odval is plotting to remove Bean’s dad King Zøg and replace him with Bean’s half-brother Derek, best thought of as The Simpsons’ naif Ralph Wiggum playing Game Of Thrones’ cruel child king Joffrey Baratheon. Derek, not as stupid as he might appear, learns of a curse on his family that threatens all of life in Dreamland, and this arc forms the backbone of a series that takes a long, long time to go not very far at all. Like Game Of Thrones, it finds a rhythm where the majority of the season’s happenings are splurged in the final couple of episodes.
At its best, that gives us an entertaining diversion into Steamland, a steampunk fantasia presided over by Richard Ayoade’s oddball industrialist Alva, adding to a cast already rich with British and Irish talent. Sharon Horgan and Noel Fielding are excellent in their roles as Bean’s evil mother and deadpan executioner Stan respectively; Matt Berry less so as Merkimer, a prince trapped in the body of a pig, and whose pompous Brian Blessed schtick is as tired as Ayoade’s nasal nerd thing. Not for the makers of Disenchantment to know, you presume, that a major character in their show has the same voice as MoneySupermarket’s Money Calm Bull.
At its worst, vast swathes of time are wasted on utterly inconsequential events, like Elfo falling in love with a boat. If you manage to empathise with that one, you probably are in love with a boat.
In that episode, Bean has a conversation with Mora, a mermaid who swam to Steamland dreaming of a career in movies, but ended up doing cartoon voiceover work. Bean remarks, “I saw one of your cartoons yesterday. Did you just make things up as you went along? Because that’s what it felt like.” If it’s intended as a joke on the episode itself, it plays like a joke against the audience for wasting their time watching it.
Unlike its storylines, the problems with Disenchantment are becoming clearer as the series progresses. It wants to be a plot-driven fantasy epic but it inhabits a world in which anything is possible and, thus, nothing has consequence. This is balanced out by recurring jokes and sight gags which can be funny (the ‘Me Flavored Beer’, sold by a wet old man in a barrel) or just plain lazy, usually involving someone being shot by an arrow or being catapulted into the distance. It also wants to be edgy, with its drug taking, drinking, fighting and shagging, but never quite goes the distance with any of it. And it wants to be modern, with its diverse human characters and same sex partnerships and its atypical, hard-drinking princess. But in the same hand, it also pokes fun at Bean’s buck teeth and body image, and has a major plot strand about King Zøg going “crazy” and “mad”, but apparently suffering dementia.
You will know by now whether you like Disenchantment, and if you do, here’s five hours of fun for you. The problem is that season three can hope only to retain the interest of that group. Casual viewers will find it more frustrating than funny.