Netflix

Matt Groening’s New Show Is Basically Futurama in the Past

Disenchantment is comfort food for Simpsons and Futurama fans.

There’s a sweet spot to the perfect time lag between projects: long enough to make people miss you, not so long that they forget who you were. Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new animated series, manages to get it wrong on both ends. It’s been almost 20 years since the last time Groening created a new show—Futurama premiered only a couple of months after The Sopranos—a period during which the entire landscape of television has been remade. And yet some combination of enduring popularity and network inertia has kept The Simpsons on the air, making it, as of April, the longest-running scripted primetime series in history. The Simpsons’ longevity is due in no small part to the ageless nature of its cartoon cast, but the show’s ability to escape the winds of change has had serious side effects, tying the makers of a 2018 series to decisions, like the one to have an Indian character voiced by a white actor, made nearly 30 years ago. The Simpsons has evolved over time, but in an era where pop-cultural properties are being rebooted left and right to better reflect a diverse world, Groening’s shows haven’t really changed—and worse, have shown little openness to understanding why others might feel that change is necessary.

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For better and often for worse, Disenchantment feels like a show that could have been launched as easily in the late 1990s as in the late 2010s. The setup is essentially Futurama in reverse: Elfo (voiced by Nat Faxon), a disillusioned misfit, abandons his familiar world and enters a new one, where he meets Bean (Abbi Jacobson), a hard-living, hard-charging young woman, and Luci (Eric André), her booze-swilling, wisecracking sidekick. The show is set in the imaginary past, not a fictional future, and Bean and Luci are, respectively, a strong-willed princess and a demonic imp rather than a spaceship pilot and a cigar-chomping robot, but it doesn’t take long for familiar dynamics to reassert themselves, especially because the show’s other two executive producers, Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley, are both veterans of The Simpsons and Futurama.

If what you’re looking for is a re-skinned Futurama with jokes about the plague and beheadings instead of aliens and package delivery, you have come to the right place. And as a longtime Futurama fan, I don’t entirely mean that as a criticism. Particularly where a service like Netflix, which is where Disenchantment premieres on Aug. 17, is concerned, there’s a lot to be said for easy pleasures, the kind where you don’t need to trouble yourself fumbling for the pause button if the doorbell rings or you get an important text. But even your favorite comfort food dishes can grow tiresome with repetition. Ugh, mac and cheese again?

The push for the shock of the new doesn’t always produce good results, but it wouldn’t have hurt for Disenchantment to branch out on its own at least a little bit. Weinstein reportedly promised that the show would offer a serialized storyline, in contrast to the near static environment of Groening’s previous shows, but in the seven episodes Netflix provided in advance, there’s precious little in the way of plot advancement, and certainly not enough to make you feel like you have to binge the next episode after you’ve finished this one. The romantic tension between moonstruck Elfo and oblivious Bean grows slightly tenser, and the show periodically cuts back to the mysterious cauldron-stirring figures who have saddled Bean with her own personal demonic torturer. But apart from the pilot, which shows Elfo escaping from the candy-coated boredom of his native country and Bean narrowly escaping an arranged marriage to the son of her father’s potential ally, you could watch the episodes in almost any order and be none the wiser.

Like the shows that spawned it, Disenchantment is joke-dense and free-associative, and it’s at its best when the writers and the voice cast run away with the material. There’s one inspired, if not especially sensical, riff where Bean runs through the entire history of a made-up rock band of which she is the theoretical singer, from early bar gigs through sudden fame and a stormy breakup, followed by a tumultuous solo career, triumphant reunion, and her tragic early death. But the willingness to follow through on such anachronistic gags undermines what could have been a strength. Disenchantment is set in a fairy-tale universe, but its reference points are clearly drawn from the European Middle Ages, and it could have benefited from more careful attention to that setting. Futurama proudly boasted a writing room full of physicists and Ph.D.s, but if there’s a medievalist on staff at Disenchantment, you’d never know it. Instead, we get a hot-tempered king (voiced by Billy West, Futurama’s Fry) who talks—screams, mostly—in a thick outer-borough accent, never mind that this is the age of queens, not Queens. There’s so much history and texture that could be mined for comic potential and hasn’t really been touched since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but instead the show inhabits a sketchy, ill-defined universe—and casts a spell whose effectiveness has long since started wearing off.