Fantasy is fertile ground for comedy. With all its weighty, terribly serious lore, its stiff traditions, and its outlandish tropes, the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are absolutely ripe for parody, yet surprisingly few shows or movies have managed to produce genuine comedy from the fantasy genre. Enter Disenchantment, the new show from animator Matt Groening, who created both The Simpsons and Futurama - two of the funniest, best observed TV shows of the past 20 years. It’s due exclusively on Netflix on August 17 and… it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.
This show was almost presented as an aside during Netflix’s ‘What’s Next’ conference in April, yet it could be one of the most important, impressive shows on the streaming service in 2018. It follows the exploits of Princess Bean (hello there, not so subtle nod to Sean Bean who plays Ned Stark in Game of Thrones / Boromir in LOTR), who is being forced to marry against her will to fulfil a political alliance forged by her father. Basically, the plot of almost any medieval fantasy epic. Within the first episode she’s joined by a devil called Luci and an elf called, er, Elfo. It’s not lazy naming, instead there’s a running joke in episode 1 that I won’t spoil here. Bean is reluctant to marry, and prefers to spend her nights brawling in bars or joyriding carriages around the countryside. The show derives much of its comedy from viewing the stuffy traditions of medieval fantasy with a thoroughly modern eye.
In terms of the humour, this is more like Futurama than The Simpsons - rather than focusing on light-hearted observations of relatable situations and characters, Disenchantment goes for outright funnies and more physical humour. There’s one scene in the first episode that features (essentially) the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones that made me laugh out loud, even if it was a bit silly. This is very much a dark mockery of medieval tropes, often veering into the ridiculous to do so. Sure, some of the jokes lack subtlety, but Futurama very much treads that fine line between clearly signposted buffoonery and less obvious “did he just say that?” funnies, and is all the better for it… so there’s no reason it can’t work here. It’s not exactly family friendly either, but that’s no surprise given the subject matter it satirises. There’s a sly nod to the incestuous relationship between Jaime and Cersei Lannister in episode 1 that sets the tone nicely.
The plotlines I’ve seen so far take you on a whistlestop tour of almost every fantasy setting, all seen through a very Simpsons-esque filter. Elves, wizards, mermaids, and ogres are all on the list, and they’re presented in a way that feels both familiar and unique to Disenchantment. Given how rich the subject matter is, this show could probably run for several seasons before reaching the bottom of the medieval barrel and repeating a single joke. Given how tightly written everything seems to be, there’s little danger of the setting or stories ever getting stale.
This show is a big coup for Netflix (who wouldn’t want the next Simpsons or Futurama on their network?), so it’s no surprise that the production values are high. It looks utterly lush, and the animations are superbly drawn, but never veers into garish excess. Similarly, the voice actors are people you’ll definitely recognise from other shows, but there are few household names in there. Long term Groening aficionados will recognise the likes of Tress MacNielle, Billy West, and John DiMaggio from his previous shows, but none are playing the principle characters. Matt Berry essentially plays Steven Toast in a fantasy setting, but that’s no bad thing, and The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding is another notable name.
As with most animated shows, Disenchantment will always offer a base-level of comedy, but its enduring appeal relies on the development of the core characters. I’ve watched a handful of the opening episodes now, and am warming to the trio at the heart of it, along with a few secondary characters, but they’re unlikely to sustain a full season in their own right. One of the reasons Futurama is so fondly thought of is the relationship between Fry and Leila (and Fry and Bender), and Disenchantment will need something similarly touching to truly fulfil its own potential. It’s a near inevitability, given how smartly observed the rest of the show seems to be.
If you’re looking for the next easy binge in between more serious TV seasons, Disenchantment could be it, although treating it as light relief that you half-watch while doing something else is doing the show something of a disservice. Even in the first episode, there are plenty of quick, blink-and-you-miss-it gags, and layers of subtlety that you may only appreciate on a second viewing. It’s way too early to say whether it’ll reach the same popularity of The Simpsons and Futurama, but when the biggest name in animation (Matt Groening) takes on the hottest TV show of the past decade (Game of Thrones), you expect something truly special. And it’s looking very promising so far.