It’s tough to shake the idea that this first season of Disenchantment wastes the potential of its rather rich concept. After all, a show from the creator of Futurama and the Simpsons, which spoofs the likes of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and any fairy tale you care to mention, seems like an absolute open-goal. But a lack of consistent humour, a failure to properly develop characters, and the failure to develop many of the comedy scenarios it creates means Disenchantment rarely rises above the ordinary. Despite some excellent jokes, scattered throughout.
It starts promising enough - we meet our hero, Princess Bean, as she starts a brawl in a local tavern after losing at cards to a commoner. Her refusal to play nice with her royal duties and the demands of her overbearing father should lay the foundation for an interesting inversion of most female characters in fantasy fiction. It’s a shame, then, that Bean doesn’t really develop throughout the rest of the season - she’s still rebelling and shirking responsibility in the same way at the end, with no meaningful journey in between. Bean is a great character, but can’t carry the whole season without more growth.
Her supporting leads don’t help much either. Luci the Devil starts off as a ‘watch the world burn’ character, but offers nothing else along the way. Similarly, Elfo, the naïve sidekick never really manages to become anything other than a one-note joke. Sure, the joke is funny at first, but after ten episodes it wears thin. Thankfully, the rest of the supporting cast is excellent, and they’re what makes Disenchantment worth watching for a whole season. Matt Berry basically plays himself as Prince Merkimer, and the episodes where he features heavily are all the better for it, with his sense of cavalier arrogance and wonky moral compass. He’s the perfect parody of a cocksure fairy tale prince, and the majority of the early-season laughs come from him. Anyone into the excellent Toast of London will find loads to enjoy here.
Noel Fielding’s turn as Stan, the city’s executioner, is another highlight, his dry British humour elevating the character into something truly memorable, despite his single-episode plotline. Elsewhere, smaller characters still, like the town crier and the mysterious wizards who seem to be manipulating affairs from the shadows all add much needed laughs. It’s just as shame the trio of protagonists don’t contribute their fair share, or we’d be looking at one of the best animation debuts in years.
Slow starts are nothing new for Matt Groening TV shows - the first season of The Simpsons, for example, is largely seen as poor, and Futurama - while far more accomplished at the beginning - doesn’t really hit its stride until later seasons when the relationship between its leading trio truly cements. So, there’s plenty of hope here that if Netflix persists with Disenchantment, it could flower into something special. For now, however, this first season is merely decent, an easy 30 minute-per-episode binge that cleanses the palette in between more satisfying watches. Again, this is no bad thing, but it could have been so much better. At least, as an animation, it looks beautiful and colourful enough to hold your attention in between gags.
Hopefully later seasons will tackle better fantasy fare too, as (with a few notable exceptions - like the Hansel and Gretel episode, and the Mermaid-themed bachelor party) many tropes are left untouched in favour of trying to put a more modern spin on medieval scenarios. It always feels far more satisfying in Disenchantment when the show is leaning on recognisable stories, rather than trying to make up its own. Perhaps that’s because we just don’t love the characters enough to truly care about the scrapes they get into, or perhaps the foundations are being built for stronger stories in later seasons. There are frustrating glimpses of how funny things could be if pages were ripped straight from the work of GRR Martin and Tolkien, and liberally defaced, but they’re few and far between. I genuinely laughed out loud when one character had an accident on the ‘Iron Throne’ in the first episode, and there are neat little slices of dialogue that wonderfully parody other characters from that fiction, but they’re significantly outnumbered by embarrassingly straight jokes from the lead characters.
In all, it’s a disappointing start to Disenchantment’s life as a TV franchise. There’s a huge amount of potential here for jokes at the expense of deadly serious, lore-heavy fantasy, and not-really-ok-in-2018 fairy tale tropes, but the show often seems reluctant to use it. Perhaps that’s because it’s setting things up for a second season, or maybe it just doesn’t quite have the cast to pull it off, but in an era where we have so much more choice from TV and demand excellence upfront, there are no guarantees that Disenchantment will return. For now, it’s just a fun-enough watch.