Disenchantment: Part 3 Review
When Game of Thrones’ finale aired in 2019, the world heaved a sigh of loss. Not to mourn the show’s end, but more to mourn the ending that could have been. What was once a worldwide phenomenon quietly shuffled into mediocre oblivion overnight. Even during a time when we’ve been stuck inside without much else to do but binge box sets, it still hasn’t clawed its way back to relevance: the pay-off was too meagre and too insulting. No one wanted to relive it.
Which is why it’s unfortunate that Matt Groening’s Disenchantment, an animated satire no doubt built on the theoretical fantasy resurgence it was believed Game of Thrones would initiate, began airing just as people were tiring of the latter’s stale, illogical plotting. There have been other successful high fantasy shows – Netflix’s The Witcher, notably, and a great more to come in the forms of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time series, as well as HBO’s upcoming Game of Thrones prequels – but the genre didn’t explode as much as many thought it would. At least not yet, anyway. Instead, Disenchantment is somewhat left in the lurch: a high fantasy satire without much high fantasy left in the current cultural zeitgeist to satirise.
In the first half of its second season (styled Part 3), pint-drinker Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson) and her pint-sized friends, Elfo (the, er, elf, voiced by Nat Faxon) and Luci (a demon…cat? played by Eric Andre) pick up where they left off, which is to say being burned at the stake for witchcraft. Soon they’re at the mercy of Bean’s bewitching but monstrous mother Dagmar (Sharon Horgan) who now rules over a network of labyrinthine catacombs populated by an army of creepy Trøgs. King Zøg (John DiMaggio) develops mental health issues after a near-death experience; Prince Derek (Tress MacNeille) befriends an unconventional group of fairies who aid his ‘coming-of-age’; Bean travels between kingdoms in pursuit of Zøg’s almost-murderer, and god knows what else. It’s a wild, farcical mess of a story which lacks enough humour to make up for it.
Admittedly, it must be difficult to make a short-form high fantasy sitcom work. The nature of high fantasy implies something sweeping and epic – impossibly large in scope yet precise and intricate in its world-building. It’s why the The Lord of the Rings movies are so long, why Brandon Sanderson novels regularly reach an over 1000-word page count, and why Game of Thrones needed ten hour-long episodes per season (it's latter and worse seasons notably had far fewer). In his decades-long career, however, Groening has typically fared the best with short, mainly standalone episodes. The Simpsons, of course, is set in one town following one family, but in 90s America anything is possible. In its overly familiar setting, Homer et al. could easily reach into other genres without going against its core premise.
But Futurama is sci-fi, isn’t it? Why did that work? Well, Futurama had the important precedent of Star Trek: a very much episodic franchise which rested on the sturdy framework of ‘new episode; new planet; new adventure’, for the most part. It’s a format which consistently works well for sci-fi – look at Doctor Who – and which can also accommodate Groening’s trademark comedic style: visual gags, one-liners and general hijinks, all to be resolved before next week. Transfer that to high fantasy though – a genre where bigger is better and where not only character development but plot threads its way from beginning to end – and you are wrestling an entirely different dragon. Not to mention the tendency of Netflix to prioritise multi-season overarching narratives in an effort to keep the viewer’s attention while binging. The balance never ends up being quite right.
It’s unsurprising then that it’s when Disenchantment slows down and focuses its efforts on building a single setting or relationship that inklings of charm seep through. In Steamland Confidential, Elfo dons an adorable suit and top hat and joins a gentlemen’s society of explorers while Bean infiltrates a whistle factory, meeting the undercover Alva (Richard Ayoade): it carries the exciting air of small-town hicks faking it 'til they make it in the big city. Most interesting, though, is Last Splash, where we’re given the lesbian mermaid romance we didn’t know we needed. Foregrounding the stunning sunset seascapes, failed actress Mora (Meredith Hagner) and Bean’s conversations on board the Miss Adventure welcome a refreshingly subdued caesura from the breakneck speed the series typically rockets at. It does get awkward however when the jokes start becoming self-referential – “I saw one of your cartoons yesterday,” Bean says, “did you just make things up as you went along? Because that’s what it felt like.” Yikes.
Just like its previous seasons, Disenchantment's third outing suffers from its inexpertly shaken cocktail of humour and storytelling. In failing to determine what it wants to be – adventurous romp? Irreverent comedy? Plot-driven fantasy? – it lacks punch and grace. And while its art and voice work only improve year upon year, without that central pillar of purpose, the show ends up flailing about, grasping onto anything it can to stay afloat.