Disenchantment, Season Two

“Everybody talks about ‘happily ever after.’ Y’ever try to read about the after? Ya can’t! The book just stops!”

So says King Zøg in the fourth episode of the newest season of Disenchantment, the animated series co-created by Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein, and which premiered Friday on Netflix. It’s a sentiment that many fantasy spoofs and “fractured fairy tales” have expressed in one way or the other, and it’s at the heart of the series’ interrogation and deconstruction of fantasy tropes. The context of Zøg’s lament is the fallout of the events that ended the first season: with Zøg’s first wife, Queen Dagmar, revealed to be a conniving sorceress who turned most of the population of Zøg’s kingdom to stone (they got better), and his second wife, the amphibious Oona, divorcing him and taking up a new career as a pirate, Zøg is disillusioned, depressed, and alone. Alone, that is, until an encounter with the mysterious, forest-dwelling Ursula, a forest selkie who can alternate between human and bear forms with the aid of her magical pelt. Zøg is smitten, and invites Ursula to live with him in the castle, where she struggles with the human business of wearing clothes and eating with knife and fork. Zøg knows her secret, and he senses that she wants to return to the forest: he knows that without her bearskin she will be a human, and belong to him, forever.

Zøg’s brush with temptation is, of course, the setup to a classic fairy tale, and probably the most direct borrowing in this second series of ten chapters. It’s also one of several episodes that focus on side characters, instead of the lead character, Zøg’s daughter Tiabeanie (nicknamed “Bean”). Like previous Groening-created series The Simpsons and Futurama, Disenchantment builds out a troupe of colorful supporting players, and one could even say (cliché alert!) that the series’ setting, Dreamland, is nearly a character itself. New developments in the second season include the continuing aftermath of Dagmar’s betrayal (Zøg spends the first couple of episodes alone, surrounded by the petrified remains of his subjects, and the desolate kingdom is looted by barbarians) and the influx of a population of elves, whose slumlike living conditions are a fertile source for new plots.

Still, Tiabeanie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) remains the show’s heart, and it is her trials that are the show’s main focus. At the end of the first season, Tiabeanie had been spirited away by her mother, Dagmar, on a ship after Dagmar’s magical attack. Taken to the desert kingdom of Maru, she is introduced to the two mysterious strangers who sent the demon Luci to corrupt Bean, and who were occasionally seen watching her through a magical fire, in the first season: they turn out to be Dagmar’s brother and sister, Croyd and Becky (err, Rebecca). In the first episode, we learn of a prophecy that Bean would be the greatest woman of her age, as well as a family curse: madness, striking members of every other generation. Bean distrusts the obviously unstable Croyd and Becky immediately, only gradually realizing that her own mother is the real threat. Dagmar intends for Bean to fulfill the prophecy, even if it means screwing a painful-looking crown directly onto her head. Even after escaping Maru and seemingly ridding herself of Dagmar and her schemes, Bean continues to dream of her mother and find signs of her lingering influence, including a very creepy music box. Bean’s gradual discovery and processing of the truth about her lineage is the main long-term arc in the second season, and like the first it ends on a cliffhanger. The pleasure is in the many digressions and side quests along the way.

Perhaps it is simply the difficulty of maintaining an air of mystery as characters and settings become familiar, but even as Disenchantment‘s second season shifts between settings as diverse as Maru, the afterlife, and a retro-futuristic city-state, there is less of the awe of visiting new and strange vistas than the later episodes of the first season evoked. In my review of that season, I compared those scenes to early episodes of Adventure Time, in which one of the primary appeals lay in the vast emptiness of the landscape, full of atmosphere and potential. As Adventure Time continued, it became more crowded with recurring characters and settings, and even its weirdest features became downright cozy with familiarity. That feeling of being alone at the edge of the world (or at the edge of a Legend of Zelda world map, which amounts to the same thing) became rarer. A similar process is at work in Disenchantment: even new, strange settings feel like home as long as the characters we’ve come to know are centered in them.

It is the nature of spoofs to puncture, to deflate: it’s probably a mistake for me to expect Disenchantment to maintain a sense of awe in a consistent way when its mode of comedy is snarky, down-to-earth–in short, Gen X. It’s right there in the title! That’s not to say that it doesn’t frequently dazzle, however. The blend of hand-drawn designs over computer-assisted 3-D models is much more seamless and less distracting in this season, for one thing, even as it becomes more ambitious: Hell, to which Bean and Luci travel in the second episode to reunite with their friend Elfo (who died at the end of the first season, and whom they must convince to leave Heaven in order to bring him back to life), is rendered as a cavernous space full of floating stone platforms, constantly in motion; the ninth episode’s Steamland scratches the itch for intricate mechanical and architectural complexities that Futurama regularly satisfied, but with a handsome nineteenth-century overlay, a city of the future as envisioned circa 1885.

Some of the more distracting story elements are also streamlined or absent. Elfo’s unrequited love for Bean, a plotline that never seemed likely to go anywhere interesting in the first season, is tempered in this one by Elfo learning the truth: that Bean chose her mother over him when using the single dose of elixir of life to revive her. Elfo (Nat Faxon) is far too good-natured to hold a grudge for long, of course, but jettisoning this particular subplot makes room for better gags and more compelling stories (including an unresolved tease about Elfo’s own parentage). As Elfo has become a little more world-weary, Bean’s other companion, the demon Luci (Eric André), has settled into his worldly existence, free of the mandate placed on him by Croyd and Becky and apparently abandoning his ambition to earn his wings (give or take a few twists in the “Stairway to Hell” episode). After winning the local pub in a bet (“and you barely cheated!”), Luci finds that slowly poisoning people is rewarding, too.

Ultimately, the theme that has remained constant throughout the series is the difficulty of being a woman in a quasi-medieval society (the “quasi” part allows for direct comparisons to the modern world, of course, and the ways in which things have or haven’t improved). At the beginning of the first season, Tiabeanie found herself unwillingly betrothed to a man she didn’t love (or even know) in order to serve her father’s political ambitions, and there are frequent reminders in the second season of her second-class status: unable to speak at court, left out of battles she is capable of fighting for herself, and even excluded from staging her own play in the theater.

Yet, the show is hardly about victimhood, as the resourceful Bean constantly finds ways to exert her will and insert herself into situations, and the male characters and their issues are frequently B-plots. Moreover, Disenchantment is full of powerful women: Dagmar and Oona, of course, but also the savage Ursula and a number of walk-ons. Bean’s trip to Steamland is illuminating not because of the city’s technological wonders but because women are free there to pursue careers closed to them in the relatively backward Dreamland. Disenchantment pokes fun at the tropes of “strong female characters” (Shelly, a circus performer, is physically strong but her real strength is in being the single mother of two kids) while centering a female perspective. On paper, Bean could easily be taken for a cliché–a hard-drinking tomboy princess–but the tight serialization of Disenchantment allows her something not all animated characters get: a sense of depth and growth over time.

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The Return of/My Return to Community

Since my children were born, I’ve developed something of a tradition: at the beginning of each fall television season, I pick one new show that I make an effort to follow.  It wasn’t a conscious thing I started doing; apparently one new show is all I can handle adding to my schedule and giving my full attention.  I watch other shows, of course, but if I miss an episode or have other things to do I don’t sweat it.  Sometimes it works out: I love animation, so Adventure Time and Gravity Falls have been rewarding to follow, although my one-show-at-a-time habit meant I missed out on Bob’s Burgers and am only belatedly catching up.  Other shows have been disappointing: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip looked like the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing, but after a promising start it never felt remotely like anything real, and was often laughably pretentious and self-important. It was a relief when it was canceled, but so help me, I watched every episode.  Other programs, like the already-forgotten Nathan Fillion cross-country racing adventure Drive and the completely bonkers conspiracy thriller Zero Hour, didn’t even last more than a few episodes.

It is both harder and easier to be a fan of a TV show than when I was young.  On the one hand, it is easier than ever to time shift, recording and watching a program on my own terms with a DVR or finding it online.  I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and part of my thinking was that if I missed something, it might never be shown again.  I didn’t want to miss anything.  It’s easier to let go now in the knowledge that YouTube, Netflix, or a DVD set will allow me to catch up down the road.  I think The Simpsons is the first show that stopped being “appointment television” for me; the decline in quality around 2000 was part of it, but I also knew the episodes I missed wouldn’t disappear into the ether like so much of the stuff I watched as a kid.

But that same accessibility raises the bar.  When I was a kid, if you knew the names of background characters, or–God help you–the behind the scenes personnel, it made you a superfan; now there is so much information that there’s practically no end to how deep you can go.  My wife recently got into Doctor Who, and while that’s an extreme case—fifty years of history, and a show that is particularly beloved on the Internet—it’s incredible just how much material there is to master.  Mastery is still a key value of geekdom: how do you know you’re the biggest fan unless you can out-trivia anyone else in the room—or online, where it becomes a more daunting prospect?

The most intense relationship I’ve had with a television show in recent years was with Community.  Beginning in 2009, Community was a classic “hang out show” stocked with colorful characters who were just fun to be around: Greendale has often been compared to The Simpsons’ Springfield, and its knowing embrace of TV and movie clichés (mostly expressed by TV-obsessed Abed) included many elements close to my heart: wordplay, slapstick, doppelgangers, pastiche, and metanarrative games.  One of the common criticisms of the show was that it flattered an audience that congratulated itself for getting references to other TV shows and movies, and I wouldn’t deny it, but what can I say?  Community rewarded an obsessive attention to detail: as closely as the audience was willing to look, creator Dan Harmon had anticipated it and put some callback or Easter egg there to reward them.  The show’s mixture of smart and dumb comedy grabbed me, and there was enough genuine feeling underlying the arch tone for some truly cathartic moments.  It didn’t just feel real: it was better than real.

Community-Season-1-Promo-Posters

It didn’t hurt that the show premiered during an uncertain time of my life, including the birth of my second child and a reevaluation of my career.  The fact that it was set on the campus of a community college also meant I could relate to it, or at least recognize the character types involved.  Community was funny from the beginning—the interaction of Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), forced to return to school after his fake law degree gets him disbarred, with Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver) is a highlight of the pilot episode—and although the first half of season one is considered uneven, especially compared to what would follow, it steadily improved and kept my interest throughout.  However, “Debate 109” was the episode in which Community went from being a good show to being my favorite show: the episode’s multiple threads (Jeff assists go-getter Annie in the debate against rival/mirror-image City College; the study group discovers that Abed’s student film project has been eerily predicting their activities; “non-traditional” student Pierce tries to help Britta stop smoking through hypnosis) come together brilliantly after a comic crescendo without becoming frantic or madcap.  The final scene, set to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home,” captures the feeling of discovery—of self and of others—that is part of the college experience, and was central to the show at its best. The episode is quintessential Community as both psychological comedy and laid-back farce.

It was also fascinating and exciting to watch the fan community develop online: reading along with Todd VanDerWerff’s reviews at the AV Club, taking part in the discussion and speculation with other fans, watching the comment threads increase in size and fervor.  It was fun to get swept up in something big; by season one’s “Modern Warfare,” an epic paintball battle told through the rhythms and visuals of an action movie, Community was a cult phenomenon.  The fact that it continued to be low-rated and seemingly underappreciated by parent network NBC only added to the fans’ love: like Arrested Development, this would be the show all your friends would catch on to in four or five years, after it had been canceled due to low ratings.  Those of us in the know were ahead of our time.

Community.thankyou

In retrospect, my infatuation with Community’s first season was like the bloom of first love: in subsequent seasons I either had to adjust to the reality that the show wouldn’t stay the same forever, or move on.  The second and third seasons were often great (the Christmas episodes “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Regional Holiday Music” have become required seasonal viewing for me), but it was inevitable that there would be missteps, and divisions within the fan community appeared as viewers reacted differently to the show’s plot developments.  (“Epidemiology,” the second season Halloween episode, was especially divisive, with its apparently real zombie plague.)

I began to sour on the show during its third season, as its increasingly outlandish plots and the emphasis on the dark undertones of the characters’ psychology became both off-putting and unreal.  The genre-hopping that seemed so brilliant in “Modern Warfare” came to seem like a crutch as they went to that well a few too many times, and instead of realistically flawed but likeable people the study group started to seem genuinely emotionally disturbed.

And this is where the realities of modern fandom started to wear on me.  Show creator Dan Harmon has a highly visible presence online: he’s active on Twitter, he regularly holds forth in his “Harmontown” podcasts, and he’s not shy about sharing his opinions on storytelling, dealing with actors and the studio, and anything else.  His troubles with the network and producer Sony, and his run-ins with cast member Chevy Chase, came to dominate news about Community; questions about its renewal were more dramatic than the show itself in its third season. Eventually, Harmon was leaking angry phone messages he had received from Chase, essentially airing dirty laundry in public.  As much as I enjoyed his work, I was starting to feel that I knew too much about the man behind the curtain.  I know, I know, “trust the art, not the artist.”  Easier said than done.  When the decision about Community’s fourth season finally dropped, it seemed to be the worst of both worlds: the show would continue, but Harmon was removed due to his inability to work with Sony.  As I said, I had already become dissatisfied during the third season, but I trusted Harmon to turn things around, and I stuck with it.  But the prospect of a “zombie Community” run by someone else, even someone sympathetic to Harmon’s aesthetic, didn’t appeal.

I watched a couple of episodes of the fourth season, but I wasn’t feeling it.  Barring a few moments here or there, it wasn’t very good, and felt like a parody confirming all the criticisms of Community as heartless and too clever for its own sake.  Combined with the sour feelings I now associated with it, tarnished by my knowledge of the behind-the-scenes rancor, I checked out and didn’t look back. I was busy anyway, and if Community was no longer the show I had loved so fervently, I no longer needed the escapism it had represented.

And yet. . . . In the wake of news that Dan Harmon would be returning to take the helm after the generally reviled fourth season, NBC is promoting the January 2 premiere of the fifth season as a rebirth and a return to form.  Seeing the teasers for the hour-long premiere event, with Jeff Winger returning to Greendale as a teacher (I guess he graduated at the end of last season, but from what I’ve heard no one was very satisfied with how it unfolded), I’m actually a little excited.  Clearly NBC is hoping to bring back fans like me, and maybe hook some new ones.  I’m going to give it a shot.  It will be hard to recapture the excitement I felt during the first season, but it will still be nice to check in with old friends.