First he came for the family sitcom. Then he came for the science-fiction adventure. Now he’s back for the medieval fantasy, and he’s grabbing the Disney princess movie while he’s at it.
Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” has brought us a third animated series, “Disenchantment,” available Friday on Netflix. Coming nearly 20 years after the premiere of “Futurama,” the new show is recognizably Groeningesque in its art, its humor and its satirical intent.
It’s also completely different from what he’s done before, in ways that longtime fans may find disconcerting. “Disenchantment,” the story of a headstrong young princess (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her two sidekicks, an elf with a serious crush on her (Nat Faxon) and a wisecracking little demon out of a Krazy Kat panel (Eric Andre), looks and feels a lot like a conventional TV comedy.
The characters resemble their predecessors from “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” but the world they inhabit lacks the screaming primary colors and free-floating surrealism we’re used to. It’s an only slightly exaggerated cartoon gloss on the “Lord of the Rings” movies and “Game of Thrones.” (That show’s King’s Landing, and the elevator on its ice wall, are referenced in the “Disenchantment” landscape.)
The visual and verbal gags still come fast, but now they’re in the context of a more earnest and straightforward style of storytelling. They feel more illustrative than essential. “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” offer constant, explosive payoffs; here the jokes are more muted, and they’re in the service of a continuing story whose major payoffs have to be delayed. That is not Groeningesque.
Some of the difference in tone and style in “Disenchantment” certainly has to do with the presence, from the beginning, of Josh Weinstein as Groening’s collaborator and the series’ showrunner. Weinstein worked on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” but he’s also developed live-action comedies and wrote for the Disney Channel animated series “Gravity Falls,” which was aimed at a younger audience.
But the biggest factor – beyond Groening’s own evolution – is probably the Netflix effect. Not that the company invented serialized seasons (see “Wiseguy” and “Lost”) or mandates a particular format (see “Black Mirror”). But it’s done more than anyone to make that the norm, and the 10 episodes of “Disenchantment,” seven of which were available for review, follow a narrative structure that’s the opposite of what Groening’s been doing for the last 30 years.
The effect doesn’t play out the way it usually does – other creators find themselves padding to fill a serialized Netflix season, while with “Disenchantment” it feels as if Groening and his writers and artists are holding themselves back, resisting the impulse to pack in more gags and visual curlicues that might interfere with the story.
(This could also be in deference to another streaming difference: The density and pace of a “Simpsons” or “Futurama” episode, with 22 minutes of material broken up by commercials, might not work as well in an uninterrupted 30-minute Netflix episode.)
The story being told is charming and familiar in equal measure. Bean, the princess of Dreamland, is an entitled teenager with daddy issues who just wants to be in charge of her own life. That desire runs up against both the usual teenage issues and the particular challenges of royalty. It’s hard to find a boyfriend who’s a good listener when your father’s trying to marry you off to form new alliances.
Like other rebellious young women in coming-of-age stories, but unlike most princesses, Bean acts out by drinking to excess and hooking up with Viking marauders and hot guys she picks up at donkey auctions. After an uncondoned party at the castle leads to a number of her father’s subjects being slaughtered, she’s packed off to a convent – Our Lady of Unlimited Chastity – for punishment.
For the longtime Groening fan, appreciating “Disenchantment” will mean resetting your internal humor clock – the laughs are gentler and more spread out. A portion of the jokes are explicitly feminist, and they tend to be on the nose and to feel obligatory (“Your first mistake was to educate her,” a counselor tells the king). But a bigger portion is mock-medieval satire, and the show’s on firmer ground there. The Dreamland convenience store, cousin to the Kwik-E-Mart, is the VII-XI, where squirrels rotate on the grill.
The bigger adjustment, though, has to do with tone and emotion. The characters in “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” were lovable and horrible, but almost never sentimental. “Disenchantment” is the first Groening show where making you sympathize with the characters appears to be as much of a goal as making you laugh at them. Ay caramba.