Matt Groening’s new series, “Disenchantment,” seeks to do for fantasy what “The Simpsons” did for family sitcoms — generate laughs by pushing a genre to its limits. As Groening’s biggest hit vamped off of TV’s traditional families by depicting a father who wasn’t just clueless but a boor, so does “Disenchantment” feature a princess who’s not just a sprightly rebel, as in other fantasy stories, but outright devious, fueled by booze and encouraged by a demon. The show’s use of fairy-tale convention generates the best laughs, but the serialized storyline and the baggy running time (the pilot is 35 minutes) keep it from soaring.
These complaints are new for Groening; “The Simpsons” is rarely slack and reboots at the end of each episode. “Disenchantment” has lots of story to get through, centered on Bean (Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City”), a princess in the kingdom of Dreamland who views her upcoming wedding with dread. She goes on a quest with two new friends, the naive elf Elfo (Nat Faxon) and the evil Luci (Eric Andre), a pitch-black, slightly feline creature who encourages Bean to make trouble. The three move through a world in which magic is unremarkable, but twisted toward raunch: The fairy they meet, for instance, is a sex worker who offers favors to songbirds.
“Disenchantment” is salty and driven by a groan-worthy, wordplay-driven sensibility. The social commentary of “The Simpsons” is absent everywhere but, perhaps, in Jacobson’s performance as a strong character who proudly embraces her flaws. Instead of re-evaluating the politics of fairy tales, though, “Disenchantment” uses them as a jumping-off point for humor that, often, works precisely because of how unabashedly dopey it is. The show has little point of view on fairy tales other than that they provide a good backdrop for jokes, a philosophy that, at its best, recalls Monty Python. Deciding to host a party, Bean declares, “I have wanted to throw one of those since they were invented five years ago.” If that works for you, so too will the show.
Despite how interested “Disenchantment” is in using its setting for goofball jokes, it is burdened with plot: The dynamics between the central trio are more interesting than their episodes-spanning, overcomplicated journey. (By contrast, that almost nothing has long-term consequences on “The Simpsons” is the sort of constraint that helps build comedy.) More time is spent moving the characters around than exploring their comic possibilities. Jacobson’s performance, convinced of Bean’s own rightness even as she drags her companions deeper into chaos, lends her personality, but the writing doesn’t pull its weight at first.
While early installments are too committed to wheel-spinning setup, sparky humor and rapport develops later in the season. Bean, drawn in classic Groening style, is a delightfully messy protagonist, and Luci, catalyzing much of the plot as he pushes Bean toward misbehavior, manages to be more than just narrative device. Eric Andre’s performance is cajolingly sinister. Nat Faxon, as sweet and besotted Elfo, provides a bit of humanity amid the relentless punning and plotting. it’s worth hoping that in future seasons, the momentum of the plot slows, a bit. These three promising characters deserve the space to convince viewers to care about whether or not they find their happily ever after.
Drama: Netflix (10 episodes, seven reviewed), Fri., Aug. 17.
Executive producers: Matt Groening, Josh Weinstein. Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Eric André, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Billy West, David Herman, Maurice LaMarche, Matt Berry, Noel Fielding, Lucy Montgomery.