Matt Groening brings his signature animation style—all googly eyes and overbites—to the Middle Ages with Disenchantment. The Netflix series, Groening’s first venture into the world of streaming, bears the familiar comedic hallmarks of The Simpsons and Futurama, but it distinguishes itself from those shows by committing to a serialized narrative, centered around the fitful maturation of Bean (Abbi Jacobsen), an unruly princess who disdains her castle-bound existence. Alongside Bean are her two closest friends: a genial elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon) and a demon named Luci (Eric Andre).
Bean’s story is a comedy of errors and a portrait of mischievousness, and a gleeful subversion of the princess archetype. The show’s writers delight in her vulgarity, finding new outlets for her impulsiveness with each episode: In one, she hijacks and joyrides a carriage, and in another, she throws a party at her father King Zog’s (John DiMaggio) castle, desperate to get laid. Yet while the series presents a protagonist with subversive, roguish charm, it’s largely characterized by the same non-sequitur humor and broad, sweeping satire found in all of Groening’s work. Disenchantment feels instantly familiar, unmistakably a product of Groening’s well-honed house style.
Dreamland, the medieval fantasy realm of the series, is populated by punny storefronts, from the apothecary Little Siezure’s Poison Shop to an adoption agency called The Little Orphan Annex. Clever sight gags envision Dreamland as a retrograde version of the modern world, where the police use blue and red lanterns, and the spas are just like ours—except they include leeches. But the show’s gag-a-minute comic brio is often devoid of insight. As it wades through comedic bits, albeit witty ones, Disenchanted appears uninterested in evolving beyond its Simpsons-meets-Game of Thrones premise.
The series is only freed from formula in moments that attend to Bean’s unwillingness to act as town executioner for a day. She’s able to learn and change, a rarity among Groening’s characters, and the most interesting ideas here concern her efforts to fulfill the expectations of her royal station. And by ending many episodes with cliffhangers, Disenchanted sustains a narrative propulsion that offsets the unoriginal presentation of the show’s arc.
Certain elements of Groening’s style are well-suited for, and even energized by, the show’s medieval setting. He’s a thorough builder of rich and distinct worlds, and Dreamland is pregnant with strange possibility. We get the sense that within the show’s byzantine castle, there are infinite curiosities for Bean to uncover. In just the early portion of the season, well-drawn, distinct side characters emerge who could serve as prominent background figures in Dreamland as the series goes on. Among them are a decidedly creepy exorcist, an exasperated town crier, and a tribe of Land Vikings, who captain ships on wheels. The series is bolstered by the appearance of such oddities, which signal a universe full of vibrant characters waiting to be discovered.
By plotting a serialized narrative within Dreamland’s unique landscape, Disenchantment only slightly tweaks the hermetic formula of Groening’s other shows. Yet with Bean, a hilariously restive, subversive, and ambitious protagonist, the series has the potential to transcend its stock roots.