The transition from scheduled programming to streaming service seems to be a difficult one.
One absolute positive about watching TV shows today is that it’s very unlikely you’re going to miss an episode. That might be a strange sentence to read but back in my all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips 90s childhood, if an episode passed you by you were left putting your fate in the hands of reruns. You had your VHS tapes, but of course to record in those days meant you had to physically be there to push record and know in advance that you were going to miss the episode in question. There was nothing worse – to an eight-year-old child at least – than catching the last part of an episode of Angry Beavers that they hadn’t seen before. I adored Angry Beavers as a kid, and it is entirely possible that there are episodes that I’ve never seen – what a dark age that truly was.
As you’d imagine, this had an effect on the way people wrote TV shows. If you can’t guarantee that the audience watching has seen every episode up to that point, then it is better to write self-contained stories rather than ones that span the entire season. Sure there were returning characters and long-lasting romantic subplots with these shows, but you almost never got the feeling that previous material was required viewing to enjoy an episode. If we take, oh I don’t know…the Simpsons for example, for the vast majority of its episodes a person could jump in without knowing a single thing about the show and still be able to understand what’s going on.
Today, we can see what we want, when we want, with the only stipulation being how fast it can get made. The impact of this greater accessibility is that writers are now more confident that the audience will be able to follow along with whatever direction they decide to go in. Entire seasons are now accessible to us at a moments notice, multiple seasons if the show has been going for a while, meaning plots can be far more complex and layered, since a huge dramatic reveal would have been 10 minutes ago, not a week ago. Sitcoms – which the Simpsons can be filed under – usually have a number of short, simplistic stories, but in this age, who’s to say they can’t be as elaborate as any high-profile drama?
And now we reach Disenchantment, which marks Matt Groening’s first show to ever appear exclusively on a streaming service, and a show that also spends far longer setting up its premise than either the Simpsons or Futurama did. Roughly two whole episodes in fact, and that might lead you to believe that Disenchantment’s story is going to focus on longer plot threads, there’s even a vague antagonistic force introduced that crops from up time to time. But that’s not the case, and a good chunk of season 1 is your typical sitcom approach of storytelling, with character and plot development taking a back seat. It’s a little jarring as Disenchantment initially promises to tell a grand tale, but drops this goal almost as quickly as it brings it up.
As a way to get the audience hooked on what’s to come (and likely to avoid getting canned by the cancel-happy Netflix), the first season ends on a cliffhanger. Yet, in the back of my mind, all I could think of is how disconnected the middle of the season felt when compared with the beginning and end. Season 2 sadly continues the trend with all my previous issues remaining intact. The main story that I was genuinely interested in rose, fell and rose again, with the show very slowly revealing more about Princess Tiabeanie and her companions. The enthusiasm I began with was starting to take some knocks, but I persevered hoping that the show might improve. Unfortunately, season 3 is when I changed the little thumbs up icon on the Netflix page into the neutral position, much to the writers despair I can imagine.
The third season to its credit attempts to form a better sense of cohesion, with longer narrative arcs being employed. Though it becomes painfully clear that the writers just don’t know what to do with its characters when it has to focus solely on them. Without the ability to throw them into any number of absurd situations, a lot of the cast of Disenchantment just has nothing to do. King Zog just sits around being “crazy” and little else, while Prince Derek literally spends most of the season sitting in his room. Any relationships formed are quickly dropped, so it’s not even like the main characters have much development, and some of the comedy consists of the voice actors going on and bloody on until the joke has been mercilessly beaten into the ground. Think about the amount of quotable lines that are contained within the Simpsons and Futurama, do you think we'll be hearing as many punchlines from Disenchantment in the decades to come?
Season 3 exposes how the writers just fall apart when dealing with this kind of lengthier storytelling, with scenes coming across as either boring, awkward or rushed. And it’s a far cry from shows like Bojack Horseman that masterfully show the characters grow, change and deal with consequences of prior actions. Maybe Bojack is the problem, since it showed me that even wacky comedic cartoons about anthropomorphic animals can go on journeys of struggle and self-improvement. Disenchantment just comes across as so aimless in comparison, and it stings all the more since it was by the people who created the Simpsons and Futurama – hell, Futurama is my favourite animated show of all time! The difference is that both of these shows knew what they wanted to do, which was to tell a story each week that was started and resolved within 20 minutes or so, and the characters didn't need to change that much because the entertainment came from the circumstances they found themselves in. But if you're aiming to weave something larger in scope as Disenchantment appears to be, then you have to make events and actions have more permanence. As it stands now, I think I’ve only got one more season in me before I throw in the towel…and give Disenchantment the forbidden mark of shame that is the thumbs down icon.