Of the series that benefit from Groening’s influence, Disenchantment is the most serialized; it’s also the series that comes closest to having an actual overarching plot, one that is leaned into in some surprising and not so surprising ways over the course of the series’ first 10 episodes. As a result, the story about a spoiled, booze-loving princess who goes by Bean (Abbi Jacobsen) and her two companions, an elf who is imaginatively named Elfo (Nat Faxon), and her literal personal demon, Luci (Eric André), expresses an interest in subverting various fairytale conventions. Early on, the series approaches this through Bean’s propensity for making jokes about her hard-drinking ways, or overtly stating a desire to be in charge of her own destiny. That means no arranged marriages for the sake of a royal alliance between two kingdoms. Instead, Bean says, “I thought I’d get married for true love. Or because I was wasted.”
Aside from a pair of ancillary plots involving Elfo forsaking the magical realm he was born in and a pair of hipster sorcerers using Luci for some undisclosed and seemingly nefarious purpose, Bean’s rejection of custom is more or less the crux of Disenchantment’s story. Because, like everything else on Netflix, this particular story is intended to be binged, the story’s arc takes on a rather odd shape. Unlike Groening’s other series, which are more easily boiled down the events or gags in individual episodes, Disenchantment is more in line with what television — especially streaming television — has morphed into in recent years: a literally streaming narrative intended to deliver a continuous, hours-long experience that rarely considers the impact of a single, standalone episode. The first 10 episodes of Disenchantment are like being on a road trip, where instead of slowing occasionally to enjoy the scenery or stopping to gawk at or admire some noteworthy roadside attraction, the narrative seemingly moves for the sole purpose of racking up as many miles as possible.
The shift finds Groening’s brand of comedy adjusting to a new formula and the expectations that come along with it. The first episode is fixated on Bean’s rebellion against a hopeless future as the wife of an inbred prince. It’s seemingly the start of a sweeping misadventure across the fictional kingdom of Dreamland that includes Shrek-like allusions to popular fairytale characters and scenarios. This is then undergirded by themes of independence and defiance in the face of tradition and authority. That notion is supported by the literal cliffhanger on which the premiere episode ends, as Bean chooses to jump off a cliff rather than marry a consolation prince voiced by Matt Berry. From a storytelling perspective, it feels like something different from Groening: an animated series that puts an emphasis on plot while still striking a tone similar to The Simpsons or Futurama. But it’s short lived. Subsequent episodes see Disenchantment settle into a familiar, nebulous streaming zone where the overarching story is at odds with a mandated episode count.
Still, the episodes themselves are fine, if mostly unremarkable in the early goings. Rather than focus on Bean’s desire to choose her own destiny, the episodes mostly follow the main trio as they engage in some minor anarchic behavior, like drinking too much, or allowing a party to get out of hand when Beans’ father King Zøg (John DiMaggio) and her half-reptilian stepmother Queen Oona (Tress MacNeille), go away for a few days. The result sees a group of land Vikings lay siege to Dreamland — while the king’s advisors are indisposed in a ritualistic orgy — leaving Bean, Luci, and Elfo to remove the pesky invaders before dad finds out. As most of the scenarios in the first few episodes, it feels as though the show is close to hitting that comedic sweet spot The Simpsons and Futurama were eventually able to capture (and in the case of the former, lose again), but over the course of its first 10 episodes, Disenchantment is not quite there yet.
It’s not really cause for concern. After all, Groening’s other hits needed time to hit their stride as well. But moving to Netflix does more than raise questions about bingeability and streaming drift; it puts Disenchantment in the conversation with the service's own BoJack Horseman, which along with, say, Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty has arguably redefined what it means to be an adult animated program in the present day. To that end, Disenchantment’s biggest obstacle isn’t whether or not it can recreate the allure of Homer and Bart Simpson, or Fry and Bender, but whether or not those sensibilities can be modified to make a lasting impression in the current television landscape. So far, Disenchantment is a welcome return for a talented creator, and though the show has its moments, the magic isn’t quite there.
Disenchantment season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.