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Matt Groening’s Influence Catches Up to Him on ‘Disenchantment’

The Netflix series is visually compelling but otherwise flawed

A photo illustration of Matt Groening and a character from ‘Disenchantment’ Getty Images/The ULULU Company/Netflix/Ringer illustration

At Netflix, Matt Groening fits right in. The announcement that the creator of the longest-running scripted series in television history had signed a two-season Netflix deal wasn’t quite on par with the nine-figure deals inked with the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. Still, bringing on the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama sent a message similar in tone, if not degree: There’s no name too big to be lured away from their longtime creative home.

Upon its arrival this week, audiences might discover that Groening’s Disenchantment fits in a little too well among Netflix’s rows and rows of kinda-curated content. As comprehensive as the company’s tastes may be, Netflix has nonetheless developed a few distinct specialties: brooding, tony dramas; catnip for teens. According to a June report from New York’s Josef Adalian, the focus on these subgenres isn’t a coincidence, but the result of Netflix’s data-driven master plan of identifying and catering to “taste clusters,” an unappetizing piece of jargon for the straightforward concept of users who share similar, well, tastes. And judging by its programming choices, one of Netflix’s most dependable taste clusters also happens to be Groening’s specialty: animated comedies targeted at adults.

Calling adult animation Groening’s “specialty” is like saying Steve Jobs was pretty good with computers. The Simpsons all but invented our current understanding of the form, and while not quite as influential, Futurama acquired enough devotees to earn a revival back when revivals were rare enough to mean something. A onetime rebel cartoonist whose dyspeptic Life in Hell earned him the Tracey Ullman Show shorts that would develop into the yellow-tinted nuclear family we all know and love, Groening pioneered the idea — on American television, at least — that cartoons aren’t just for kids. They’re made by adults, after all, and could be just as cynical, crude, and potentially sophisticated as their creators.

Which is why it’s dismaying to see that, in the context of his new home, Groening suddenly appears less ahead of the times than behind them. With Disenchantment, Groening’s influence has caught up to him. The fantastical story of the rebellious Bean (Abbi Jacobson) and her not-so-trusty companions — a demon named Luci (Eric André) and a smitten elf named, straightforwardly, Elfo (Nat Faxon) — bears a visual trademark no other series can capture. But taken as a whole, Disenchantment lacks the magic that theoretically suffuses its fictional Dreamland. It doesn’t help that, thanks to the Netflix algorithm, the shows that have taken Groening’s torch and run with it are just a click away.

In the years between Futurama’s finale and Disenchantment’s premiere, American animation has enjoyed something of a critical renaissance. (The Simpsons, of course, never went away.) Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Gravity Falls became crossover hits, appealing to sensitive kids and stoner adults in equal measure. Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty was more definitively PG-13, both in its graphic humor and melancholic themes about the prison of psychosis. Yet no provider not specifically devoted to animation has done more to capitalize on and advance the trend than Netflix. One of the streaming service’s first-ever original series was BoJack Horseman, the showbiz satire/realist psychodrama/repository of animal puns ecstatically celebrated by a certain portion of the internet as the antihero age’s one true successor. F Is for Family, Bill Burr’s Archie Bunker riff cocreated by Simpsons alum Michael Price, has earned plaudits for its shaggy ’70s throwback. And last fall, Nick Kroll’s Big Mouth became something of a surprise sensation, presenting an alternately raunchy and tender take on the ravages of early adolescence.

Even in isolation, Disenchantment has its undeniable flaws. In advance interviews, Groening had said that he and showrunner Josh Weinstein, with whom he’s collaborated before on both The Simpsons and Futurama, “plotted [Disenchantment] like a drama, then added jokes.” He’s also claimed that Futurama taught him that genre humor has his limits, so Disenchantment is designed not to lean on its most obvious source of laughs: “We have to get past the fantasy jokes and into real emotion,” he told The New York Times. This dichotomy between character and comedy is a false one; part of what makes BoJack Horseman such a clear Simpsons descendant is its combination of humanistic observation with razor-sharp one-liners, and Rick and Morty frequently combines sci-fi parody with emotional climaxes. But it’s not necessarily a flawed priority, if executed well: fully realized personalities are the sine qua non of a sustainable comic setup, someone the creator of Lisa Simpson, Sideshow Bob, and Mr. Burns knows better than anyone.

The problem is that Disenchantment’s protagonists turn out to be as two-dimensional as their setting. Bean is a spoiled party girl who hates the responsibilities of royalty but also doesn’t know how to survive without them, a persona that mostly manifests in cracks about her unattractive buck teeth or how much she drinks. Luci mostly encourages Bean to misbehave, a strangely flat and repetitive schtick for a character freed from the bounds of propriety and voiced by such an anarchic performer. Elfo has a crush on Bean he makes increasingly and embarrassingly more obvious, making him the most groan-worthy of the trio. And despite Groening’s insistence that he designed Disenchantment with Netflix in mind to be more serialized and therefore dramatic, none of these people show any sign of change or growth. Bean is no closer to discovering what actually would make her happy, if not being a professional wife; Elfo is no closer to realizing he should take the hint.

Sitcoms thrive on stasis, and it would be perfectly fine if Groening promised one kind of show only to deliver a proficient version of another. But by its creator’s own admission, Disenchantment doesn’t make much of fantasy tropes, apart from some standard gags about how terrible it was to live in a time before indoor plumbing, or include many jokes for jokes’ sake. Nor does the show take advantage of the internet-enabled profanity that makes Big Mouth’s humor so shocking and emotion so disarming: “We went in that direction and it didn’t feel right. It felt too easy,” Groening shrugged to the Wall Street Journal. And the characters Disenchantment theoretically doubles down on instead don’t make up for these potential wellsprings’ absence.

Disenchantment isn’t actively retrograde, as some of Groening’s recent statements about the controversy surrounding The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon made me fear. Nor is it entirely without its merits. It’s a pleasure to watch Groening, a cartoonist first, start to build an ensemble to rival The Simpsons’ with the assistance of some souped-up 2018 technology: a pig who used to be a prince; a queen who’s part lizard; the dizzying tableau of Dreamland panned over in the opening credits as the squelchy, upbeat brass theme plays over it. In visual beauty, at least, Disenchantment leads the Netflix animation pack.

On most other scores, though, Disenchantment falls flat. As someone who learned the bulk of her pop culture references from the nightly 7 p.m. Simpsons rerun on my local Fox affiliate, it’s a little saddening to see Groening lapped in ingenuity and comedic chops by those who’ve taken his affinity for allusive unreality and run with it. But, spun another way, it’s also encouraging. Disenchantment may have Groening looking backward in time for inspiration; his chosen medium, on the other hand, has only moved forward. I’d rather Disenchantment seem dated than have a world without the shows that make it come off that way.