Here are some quick thoughts after watching the first 45 minutes (i.e. an episode and a half) of Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new Netflix show. The protagonist is Princess Bean.
- The action in the bar-brawl scene Bean was introduced in felt stilted and uncomfortable. Was it supposed to be slapstick and funny, was it supposed to show her as headstrong and sharp? It kinda tried both and failed to be either as a result, it was unfunny (because it wasn’t slapstick enough) but showed her as kinda dumb and clumsy (because it was kinda slapstick). However we know her not to be dumb and clumsy because in the set-up to her introduction, which takes place off-camera, she overpowers and outsmarts several guards. The guards go as far as to request to be sent on crusade instead of having to guard her anymore. An unfunny, conflicted opener to your protagonist seems like a terrible, terrible idea in writing a comedy TV show.
- Bean’s mum and dad are thinly veiled satires of Donald and Melania Trump. Okay funny, but the rest of the show isn’t a satire of modern American politics, so why are they? It kind of throws the otherwise reasonably believable medieval/fantasy world by having it ruled over by a brash New Yorker and a (badly misogynistically written) disinterested Slavic wife. Also does this mean that Bean is Ivanka? What’s going on here?
- Keeping with misogyny, this feels like a show about a woman written by a team of only men (spoiler alert, it is). In 45 minutes Bean shares the screen with only two women, one is an idiot lady-in-waiting and the other is the aforementioned Melania-squid lady. Bean has deliberately meaningless or pointless conversations with both. She later goes on to explicitly say that she has no female friends — freeing the male writers from having to imagine what two women might talk about without a man being there. A female character who is unable/not shown to be able to speak to 50% of the population is not a fully formed or remotely believable character. If you can’t believe a character, you can’t find anything that happens around them/to them/by them funny. Male jokes coming out of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Character mouths don’t really do it anymore.
- Hang on I just remember there’s a third female character Bean speaks to, it’s a prostitute.
- The character of Luci(fer) is a mess. He appears and tells Bean that he’s there to encourage her to do bad things. So basically he’s Bender to Bean’s Fry, but instead of being his own character, which makes his actions unpredictable and interesting, we’re explicitly told that the whole purpose of him is to encourage her to do self destructive things, regardless of their merits, and is therefore incredibly boring as uninteresting. We know that he’ll always suggest bad things because that’s what he does, not because he has any higher motive. Dull Dull Dull. He gets a few good lines but they’re wasted because we don’t care about him. Also (being reeeaally picky here) but if your only black actor (out of a cast of 18) is literally a devil: I dunno it doesn’t look good.
- Elfo — what motivates this guy, it changes every 5 seconds. And not in a way that reveals that he’s a complex conflicted character, but in a way that suggests that the writers haven’t decided what they’re doing with him yet, which is a pretty major failing in one of the central 3 characters. Also there’s strains of Incel-being-played-for-laughs to his character which I hope get dropped from the rest of the series. There’s an explicit joke about the Friend Zone, it’s 2018 for crying out loud.
- We can sum up this show by way of reference to Prince Merkimer. He’s the persistent sissy husband-to-be/pursuer, which is a character that has been done so, so often, ESPECIALLY in the medieval context (Shreks 1 & 2, Frozen, Brave and Robin Hood, immediately spring to mind) so for the love of god you’ve got to try a bit with it to make it kinda interesting. As it is, he’s probably one of the better characters in the series so far, but still much less interesting/funny than either baddies from Shrek or the guy from Frozen. To stress my point here: notoriously fluffy films for children have substantially deeper characters than Disenchanted. The problem with Disenchanted is that by being allowed to take a traditional children’s’ setting and use adult jokes and depictions of violence, they spend so much time making jokes about masturbating elves and getting women topless (what the fuck was that scene about anyway) that they don’t’ have any time to make the audience care about the characters.
- Things I liked:
- Always good to hear Matt Berry’s voice.
- The Simpsons/Futurama staple of a situational gag that stands alone from the rest of the episode (think: Sideshow bob and the rakes) is there in utter abundance. The trumpet/portcullis/kazoo bit had me laughing out-loud.
Atrociously poorly written characters undermine great comedy moments. Really sad proof that you can make great jokes but if the characters are flimsy and unbelievable (Bean), Out-of-Context (her parents), unclear (Elfo) or just downright uninteresting (Luci) then they just don’t make you laugh.