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The serialization continues, but not for long enough
Imagine trading banter with Matt Groening, Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, Sharon Horgan, and Noel Fielding over voice chat in a hilarious, cannabis-fueled World of Warcraft session. That's what I was doing -- imagining -- instead of paying attention to Season 2 of Netflix's Disenchantment, an occasionally inspired show which continues to amuse by giving us opportunities to picture it being slightly better.
Season 2 (Netflix calls this 10-episode chapter Part 2 because it ordered 20 episodes off the bat, but c'mon, it's Season 2) starts strong, picking up on the cliffhanger of Season 1. Rough-and-tumble princess Bean (Jacobson) has been kidnapped by her long-lost mother (Horgan,) who has taken a predictable turn as a heel. Bean's home Kingdom of Dreamland has been turned into stone, and Bean has been forced to make a terrible moral choice which has resulted in the death of her good friend Elfo. The three episodes that end Season 1 and the three that begin Season 2 are as good as Disenchantment gets, with an engrossing, high-stakes storyline worthy of any fantasy series.
But, bummer -- by mid-season the show has reverted as far back to status quo as continuity will allow. Bean, who spent the pilot episode escaping from her overbearing father and his backwards Kingdom, is still puttering around in Dreamland, her dumb Dad still on the throne. The majority of the season's episodes are stand-alones, with funny gags and beautiful backgrounds, but without a strong through line that makes us immediately jump to the next episode. Any given episode may be better or worse than an analogous episode of Futurama, but it doesn't feel new, necessary, or compulsory.
In contrast, when Bean and her friends Luci (Andre) and Elfo (Nat Faxon) have a desperate goal, and are journeying into unknown parts of a sprawling and exciting fantasy world, everything comes alive. And the makings for a serialized show are there. Disenchantment has proven that it can make the kind of bold choices that fuel extended plots: an entire race's homeland is destroyed; a secondary character abandons royal living to become a pirate; and a character's death is, if not irreversible, at least consequential.
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These are the kind of developments that audiences expect these days -- in the world of genre shows, and in the world of streaming shows, even comedies. Bean's multi-episode agony over her involvement in Elfo's death would have been jarring in The Simpsons, but is wholly metabolizable in a Netflix environment. We can appreciate the jokes, the generous easter eggs, the bizarre new lands and races, and the evolution of our heroes, because we are lost in a story that makes it all feel purposeful. When we start thinking about the characters instead of the actors, we are relaxed enough to laugh and enjoy the scenery.
And what scenery! Disenchantment is a good looking show, easily the most stylish Groening creation since the Klasky-Csupo years of The Simpsons, when Bart's face could bend in two directions at once. Several character designs, including buck-toothed Bean and her father's Akbar and Jeff-like lackeys, harken back even further, to Matt Groening's punkish Life in Hell comic strip. Luci's black-matte 2D design is unlike anything seen in a Groening comedy, and makes him feel like the interdimensional interloper he's meant to be, especially contrasted against the gorgeous 3D backgrounds. Whether the King's Landing-like city streets of Dreamland, or in a fantastical one-off location, the set pieces are suitable for framing; or at least for that video game I'd like to play with the cast.
The voice talent is more than just celebrity casting: Jacobson and Andre in particular find new rhythms that save lines from being rehashed Simpsons joke templates. "I think you're in serious trouble with the murder and all," says Elfo. Jacobson's Bean responds: "Attempted murder! And it wasn't even murder, and I didn't attempt anything, and they know it," in a way that isn't Simpsons, and isn't Broad City, but is perfectly Disenchantment. Andre, one of America's most aggressive comedians, is somehow neutered as a mischief-making demon, but his powerful, elastic voice is a treat to hear.
The music is by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, who with Groening and Simpsons writing legend David X. Cohen, represents the old guard of satiric masters. As exciting as this intergenerational hipster convention is in theory, it sometimes pulls the show, Bart's-face-like, in different directions. The secondary and tertiary characters tend to talk and behave like characters from The Simpsons, and Dreamland and its characters are often white-coded, 20th-century based stock types. When Bean finds herself in a Dreamland coffee shop, there's a beat poet performing, and the customers snap their appreciation. It's a cliché, not even from Groening's prime, but from his childhood, and it's one sign that there's not enough young talent at the writing level. Several voices are provided by Tress MacNeille of The Simpsons; while we are grateful for her classic creations, her presence takes us out of the show we're watching and into another one for which we feel nostalgic fondness.
The most damning sign of the show's generation clash is its reluctance to plunge full-on into serialization. Disenchantment works best when it is an inspired, anything-goes fantasy show, and worst when it is a sitcom set in a fantasy world. Disenchantment's enviably talented cast and crew should go for broke with their story, laying the twists and mysteries all on the table, rather than trying to spread their good ideas over as many seasons as possible. By treating itself as a limited series, Disenchantment could distinguish itself as the most unique of the Groening animation triumvirate. If it keeps treading water like this, as the "Groening show with the fantasy setting," it may not last long enough to take advantage of its tremendous assets.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Disenchantment Season 2 premieres Friday, Sept. 20 on Netflix.