Very important editor's note: Netflix sent seven of 10 episodes for review, but upon watching the final three after the series was released, I've changed my tune on the show quite a bit. So, I will leave the original review intact as it was originally published, and add some new thoughts at the bottom. If you're too lazy to scroll all the way to the end of the story, I'll keep it short here: The last three episodes cured a lot of what ailed the series in the first seven episodes, and I'm really looking forward to Season 2, if Netflix orders it.
You can tell pretty quickly that Disenchantment won't be living up to the quality of the other shows in the Groeningverse. Disenchantment's awkward and slapdash theme song doesn't have the vigor of The Simpsons' classic tune or the playfulness of Futurama's underrated opening; as welcoming as those are, Disenchantment's is more like someone banging pots and pans into your head. It's full of the clangs and shouts of a theme song conceptualized as a medieval Modern Family jingle and feels like it's related to Groening's other classics, but without the warmth. Netflix's "Skip Intro" option was made specifically for this.
This isn't a review of the Disenchantment theme song, but its problems are also emblematic of what's wrong with the first original show premiere from Matt Groening since Futurama debuted in 1999. And all of this could have been avoided if Disenchantment decided to do something different instead of rehash Futurama in a new setting. The last thing I wanted to do was whine about why it's not as good as Futurama, but the similarities and their bland implementation -- as well as Groening's trademark animation style -- make it impossible not to talk about.
But first, the details. A Westerosian land of fantasy and magic was a fantastic choice for Groening's next adventure, but the central trio of characters shouldn't also feel stuck in the past. Our heroine is the buck-toothed Bean (voiced by Broad City's Abbi Jacobson), the princess of Dreamland who is more interested in getting liquored up than tending to her princessian duties. She's joined by Elfo (Nat Faxon, appropriately more dumb here than he is in Netflix's Captain Underpants), a pretty stupid elf who escaped his sickeningly joyous homeland after humping the elf king's daughter, and he sticks with Bean because he's into her, I guess. Luci (Eric Andre) is a feline-like demon sent by some netherworld spies (who we occasionally check in with) to keep an eye on Bean, and probably more, we don't know. The pilot seems burdened with giving them all a reason to team up, but in the end, you just have to accept that they're palling around for the convenience of making a show.
[As for the characters themselves, by Futurama archetypes, Bean is a Leela (with a touch of Fry's slacker 'tude), Elfo is a shrunken-down Fry (with a touch of Zoidberg's cluelessness) and Luci is another human-hating Bender (bite my shadowy medieval ass?). It all leads to overly familiar comedy and well-tread beats, which is fine if you're a CBS sitcom, but not for a comeback of sorts of one of the most successful animation minds ever.]
What Disenchantment should have done is taken advantage of being on Netflix and gone for a more serialized story, which would help it distinguish itself from Futurama and also help bring it into this century of binge TV. There are some callbacks to previous episodes, but for the most part, it's a new problem/adventure each episode that doesn't really affect the episodes before or after it. Why not dangle the idea of war over the first season? How about give us a villain to worry about? Hell, give us an undead army of snow wights slowly marching in from the north -- or any other season-long problem to solve or care about. With the humor and rhythm not up to what Futurama delivered, anything to keep our minds off of "this isn't as good as Futurama" would have been welcome. This show wouldn't exist without Game of Thrones, so why not go whole hog and properly satirize that?
At least Disenchantment gives us a great character in Elfo, whose dipshittery is worth some solid laughs. He's a sort of Mr. Bill for our times, with his vacuous high-pitch squawk and magical constitution a great combo for all the physical torture he endures. Please continue to beat the crap out of him, show, it's what you do best. But also, maybe leave Elfo's horniness toward Bean behind? It's creepy.
The best part of Disenchantment is its world rich with endless possibilities. With Vikings, ogres, amphibious humanoids and more, it feels very much alive... mostly in the background. In fact, the show's best jokes will require you to tune out what's happening in the story and focus on the sight gags. There's The Good Place level of punnery going on with several of Dreamland's shop signs, as though the writers had a better time filling in the universe than crafting the stories inside it. Although, I suppose if I'm saying to not pay attention to what's happening up front in order to laugh, that's probably not the best endorsement.
This review reads harsher than my actual feelings toward the show, but that comes from being a devoted fan of Futurama and the classic years of The Simpsons. Disenchantment isn't a terrible show and it certainly gets better after a few episodes (the same was true of Futurama), but considering what came before it, it's definitely a disappointment.
Update: OK, once Disenchantment was released in full I went ahead and watched the final three episodes that weren't given to us for review and WHAT DO YOU KNOW, it pretty much fixed many of the issues I had with the first seven episodes. It turns out the season ends on a really great three-episode arc that opens up the show to a serialized future, which is all I really wanted. Everything else gets better from there; it's more focused, it's funnier, the characters are richer, their relationships are stronger, real villains arrive, and the future of the entire kingdom is at stake. It feels like a totally different series, with tons of surprises revealed and a "Winds of Winter"-style ending. There's even a major death (which won't stick) that brings emotion into the whole thing, and the show immediately comes to life (as does something else!).
It's odd that Netflix would cut critics short like that and not show us what turns out to easily be the best three episodes of the season -- were they really worried about spoilers, of which there are many in the last 90 minutes? But it looks like Disenchantment takes the path of many of Groening's previous shows, and gets better after some early bumps. Binge away and stick with it 'til the end.
Disenchantment premieres Friday, Aug. 17 on Netflix.