Review: Disenchantment Season 1

disenchantment-netflix

In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

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Points of Connection, Part Three: Invasion of the TV Doppelgangers

Of course, sometimes less is more: a few carefully selected details can tell us everything we need to know about a character, especially in the visual media of comics or film.  At the very least, putting a familiar character in a new uniform with a new name can work wonders, creating a “reskinned” version of the known character, to borrow a metaphor from video games.  The Justice League are suggested visually in Planetary and The Authority; numerous pulp and comics figures are recognizable in Planetary, and entire worlds where costumed heroes are the norm are presented in works such as Astro City, Top 10, and The Venture Bros.: our escapist fantasy is their day-to-day, and naturally there are connections to familiar characters, sometimes played straight and sometimes distorted like the reflections in a funhouse mirror.

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

It can be most fascinating when only a hint is given: Berthold, Albrecht, Adolphus, and Gustavus, the companions of Baron Munchausen (themselves a sort of 18th century superhero team) have little backstory or individuality beyond their extraordinary abilities, but I was captivated by them after seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film. Berthold is the fastest man alive (literally faster than a speeding bullet), to the point that he is shackled to a pair of iron balls to keep him in place; Albrecht is a gentle giant, possessed of great strength; Adolphus is the hawkeyed marksman; Gustavus has incredible hearing and can exhale gale-force winds (two abilities that don’t appear related on the surface, but there is a poetic rightness to their pairing). The simplicity of their characterization is tied into their superlative abilities: comic book and fairy tale narratives alike depend on simple, clearly defined characters, who are often boiled down to the pure essence of whatever they are.  Being well-rounded isn’t required, particularly for those in supporting roles.  Munchausen’s companions compare well to Doc Savage’s team of experts or any other team where diverse abilities and personalities are subordinated to a strong leader who can bind them together.

The best example of the power of suggestion is probably the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a “gadget antihero,” whose cool uniform and badass swagger (as has been pointed out many times before, his bona fides were instantly established with two words from Darth Vader: “No disintegrations”) sparked the imagination of Star Wars fans everywhere when he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back.  Even his ironic, thoroughly non-badass fall into the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi took little shine off his reputation.  Sadly, his origin, as established in the prequel trilogy, has only served to deflate his mythic status (along with everything else in the Star Wars universe).  Sometimes it is really better not to reveal too much.

I mean, just look at him.

I mean, just look at him.

Television has developed its own conventions for doubles, for reasons unique to the medium.  It’s very common for procedurals like Law & Order and political dramas like The West Wing to fictionalize real-life individuals, with L & O especially prone to using cases that are “ripped from the headlines.”  In addition to the changes of names and inessential details involved, the casting of actors signals the added layer of unreality to the audience: like the use of superhero pastiches, it allows the writer the freedom to embroider or change facts (especially important considering the need to wrap up a criminal case every week, as opposed to the sometimes murky and prolonged real-life cases they’re based on).  Indeed, it’s only one step removed from casting a role in a biopic or docudrama, or impersonating a public figure on Saturday Night Live.  In an era where celebrities, politicians, and other public figures are familiar to audiences through their television appearances, the replacement of one heavily mediated figure with another can be accepted without batting an eye.

Animation is fertile ground for the kind of doubling seen in the comics: it is a visual medium limited only by the imagination of the artists, and most animated shows draw on genres and conventions related to the comics: superheroes, fantasy/science fiction, adventure, and humor, all of which benefit from bold designs and clear characterization based on stock types—in other words, the domain of the archetype and the doppelganger.  Animation does add a layer unavailable to the comic book, however: voice acting.  Just as in the thinly fictionalized cases of L & O, the presence of a familiar actor (even if in voice only) can cue the audience to similarities between characters.  For example, TV’s longtime Batman Adam West lent his voice to the Squadron Supreme’s Nighthawk on an episode of Super Hero Squad Show (“Whom Continuity Would Destroy!”), a not-so-subtle nod to Nighthawk’s model (and one in a long string of self-deprecating turns by West).  Likewise, Kevin Conroy (the voice of the title character on Batman: The Animated Series) appeared as  Captain Sunshine (a character superficially resembling Superman, but whose mansion and relationship with his “ward,” Wonder Boy, clearly parodies the homoerotic subtext often attributed to Batman’s relationship with Robin, the “Boy Wonder”) on The Venture Bros. (“Handsome Ransom”).

Shelbyvillelimit

Comedies, however, have really taken the doppelganger concept and run with it in the last decade: it fits perfectly with the self-referential, metatextual idiom that took hold in the 1990s with The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and came to fruition with programs such as Spaced, Arrested Development, and CommunityThe Simpsons had its Shelbyville, a mirror version of hometown Springfield, complete with doppelgangers of the main cast (in the episode “Lemon of Troy”).  On Seinfeld, when Elaine started hanging out with Kevin, referred to as “Bizarro Jerry” in the episode of the same name (a reference, of course, borrowed from Superman’s mythos), she found herself at a different coffee shop and with a group that resembled Jerry, George, and Kramer.  (The fact that Bizarro Jerry and his friends were generous and considerate, of course, ultimately excluded Elaine from their company: she didn’t fit in with them.)  Since then, there is hardly a single TV comedy from the last ten years that hasn’t played with the idea of a character or group that mirrors one or more of the main characters.

bizarro

A theme that runs through many of the examples I’ve cited is one of maturity, even senescence, looking back and reevaluating the follies of youth (the youth of a medium, its characters, or its audience, it makes no difference), what Geoff Klock calls the revisionary narrative. In Gilliam’s film, Baron Munchausen revisits the scenes of his youthful adventures, getting his servants together and confronting the results of his earlier decisions.  The screwed-up lives of professional adventurers and the way their dysfunction is passed from generation to generation is a primary theme of The Venture Bros. (In Gilliam’s film, Berthold was stranded in a cage on the Moon for twenty years after being abandoned by the Baron; Dr. Jonas Venture similarly left trusted companions, experimental subjects, and dangerous inventions behind in the Venture Compound, messes his son Rusty has had to deal with throughout the series.)  And of course, the characters in Watchmen are dominated by the past, ruminating on it, trying to get past it or relive it, digging up skeletons that are better left buried.  Nostalgia, regret, and loss of potency figure in all three narratives.  (Still, I don’t want to overlook the enormous pleasure I get from these stories: even Watchmen, which I wouldn’t exactly describe as “fun,” is exhilarating on account of its ambition and technical achievement.  It has the uplifting quality of a great tragedy instead of just being a giant bummer.)

Special thanks to Matthew Grenier and Adam Byers for helping me sharpen some of my arguments and pointing me toward some examples I hadn’t thought of.  Of course, my wrong-headed conclusions are all my own, and the only blame they deserve is for encouraging me.

Next, I’ll examine pastiche writ large, and a counterexample: Galaxy Quest and Escape From Tomorrow.