Disenchantment, and the Death of the First Season

by thethreepennyguignol

As I wrote last week, The Simpsons is one of the shows that made me, and Matt Groening, by extension, is one of the creators who I’m constantly interested in: beyond The Simpsons, Futurama and Life in Hell are both fucking fantastic in their own ways, so when Disenchantment, his new show with Netflix, came out, I knew I had to slam myself face-first into it at dangerous speeds.

Starring Abbi Jacobson, Nat Faxon, and Eric Andre, amongst an astonishingly star-studded comedy cast, Disenchantment follows a renegade princess as she navigates her hedonistic life through the pressures of a fantasy fairytale kingdom under the rule of her despotic and idiotic father, with an elf freshly escaped from the eternally optimistic land of elves and her personal demon by her side. And don’t get me wrong, as someone raised on the glorious fairytale skewering of the inimitable Shrek film series, I was pretty well up for it as a premise. Groening has taken on science fiction with wild success and creativity, so why not fantasy?

And to be totally fair, Disenchantment is not a bad show by any stretch of the imagination. Every episode has at least one laugh-out-loud gag; the characters take a little time to settle in, but once they’re in the groove, there are some awesomely fun performances scattered through the show. The world at large is where Disenchantment really seems to shine, as it twists up tropes and squirts out something new from the other side, from the feminist giant with a PHD to the fetish of being miserable in a world of utter, militant happiness. It’s a pretty good show, fun and occasionally sharp, with an all-star cast to elevate the flabbier material.

But it’s got it’s issues, too. The runtime feels like the biggest one, with most episodes clocking in between twenty-eight and thirty-six minutes – often, episodes could have been fit into a lean twenty and lost a lot of those flabbier jokes. Despite attempts to characterise him, the elf sidekick Elfo never really feels anything other than a petty annoyance, and the jokes often feel kind of uninspired. When the show really leans into it’s world, it feels enormous and expansive, but there were too many episodes of characters just hanging around a castle where the main gag was how drunk they were. And, being over sixteen, getting hammered or being a bit of a shit person stopped being edgy hilarity to me quite a while ago.

But it’s also a first season, through and through, and so perhaps it’s not really surprising that it doesn’t feel fully-formed yet. The first season for many shows, even brilliant ones, even ones from Matt Groening, feel like gestational periods, where writers and actors are figuring out their strengths, the stuff they can lose, they stuff they should lean in to. But thanks to content producers like Netflix and Amazon, who dump full fresh seasons on us at a pretty alarming rate, we expect shows to be flying from the first episode – why would we stick around through a whole season of figuring out the kinks, when there are shows that come out storming off the bat? That crucial gestational period feels like it doesn’t exist the way it used to, when we shows might have gotten huge in their later seasons after a few years of quality behind them.

The turnover for a company like Netflix is exceptionally high, and the hit rate and faliure rate reflects that in kind – just check out Insatiable, the diabolical beast out earlier this month along with Disenchantment. But that speed sometimes leads shows like Disenchantment, which is a promising first season but a first season nonetheless, to feel inessential and inherently lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I think that networks taking more risks and putting out more content leaves room for the kind of thing we might not have seen before – it’s hard to imagine something like Sense8 getting a comission from a traditional network, for example – but, judging by the lukewarm reviews for Disenchantment, that space to grow and work out kinks in real time doesn’t feel like it exists the way it used to. The first season as we know it is dead, with a landscape so packed-out you’d got to come out swinging first time around or risk vanishing under the weight of everything else. I know I was already antsy watching this whole season, already tempted by the half-dozen things that had been released to better reviews since it came out.

So, yeah, Disenchantment isn’t bad, but it’s also a classic first season, with all the problems that come with a show’s first run. And I feel like it’s going to suffer under the weight of the pop cultural landscape it’s been released into, where there are already bigger, better things coming out before you’ve had time to get through two episodes. What did you think of the show? Will you be coming back for season two? And what have you already moved on to by now? Let me know in the comments below!

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(header image courtesy of NME)