Matt Groening is about to get medieval on us. His new series, premiering Aug. 17 on Netflix, is Disenchantment, a 10-episode adult animated comedy featuring a poker-playing princess, her personal demon and a dopey elf, along with a rogue’s gallery of fools and Dark Ages deplorables. The dysfunctional kingdom is an abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here kind of place. Which is to say, it is a real Groening kind of place.
“Did you ever wish you could live in a place where people are really, truly happy?” the feisty princess named Bean wonders aloud in the show’s first episode. Later, in way of an answer, her tiny companion Elfo judges that singing while you work is not happiness, but “mental illness.”
Misanthropic stuff from Groening and his like-minded staff of satirists is nothing new from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, whose cartoon career began in 1977 with the weekly comic strip Life in Hell.
Asked about hope and contentment, Groening dismisses both. “I don’t believe in happiness as an achievement,” he says, over the phone. “Everyone has moments of happiness, like when your child is stolen by the United States government and then gets returned to you. In that moment, you’re happy.”
But in general?
“Life is full of horrible tragedy and unnecessary cruelty and all the rest of that,” Groening continues. “Disenchantment takes a glance at that stuff, but it does it in a way that I think is palatable and doesn’t just bum you out.”
Viewers of The Simpsons over its 29 seasons should be familiar with Groening’s worldview and thoughts on the human condition, as expressed by the d’oh-saying everyman and occasional existentialist Homer Simpson – “life is just one crushing defeat after another, until you just wish Flanders was dead”– or, metaphorically, by a perpetually foiled Sideshow Bob character who steps onto one rake after another.
According to Groening, Disenchantment takes the ambitions of The Simpsons and the 31st-century-set Futurama and “pushes it a little bit further.” And while the term “medieval” is often used pejoratively, the 64-year-old graduate of Washington’s Evergreen State College says the fractured fairy tale isn’t about the ogres and princesses of the past. “I always think that everything you see in fiction, whether set in the future or in the past, is actually about right now.”
As with Groening’s past work, Disenchantment serves as a goofy distraction on one level and blunt satire on another. Either way, in a world full of suffering and idiots, Groening keeps us entertained and sane.
Take (for amusement purposes only), Disenchantment’s religious commentary made during a church-set royal wedding scene:
“Dearly beloved, as we stand here in this overly large building designed to make us feel small and inadequate, we ask the invisible god we think is up there to watch over us – if he, she or it is even capable of things like watching over us. I mean nobody knows anything for sure, but if I talk with confidence, you dopes will believe anything I say.”
It’s funny, as Homer Simpson often says, because it’s true.
From Life in Hell to Disenchantment, and from medieval times to the far-ahead future, there is a consistent theme to Groening’s work that is both disheartening and comforting: People do not change. Disappointment is perpetual; all ages are dark.
“Disenchantment is a really good word for these days,” says Groening, a very wealthy man often photographed smiling. “As a cartoonist, you see the world that you’re in and you do your distorted reaction to that. Cartoons are characters and so you have fun with it and entertain people who are stuck in the same world as you are.”
Homer Simpson couldn’t have said it better. Or maybe he did, muttering the undeniable truth that “the answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV.”
Editor’s Note: For the interview with Matt Groening, a Netflix publicist requested The Globe and Mail not ask The Simpsons creator about the controversy over racial stereotyping in the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a South Asian immigrant. When asked if Groening was declining to speak about the issue, the publicist replied, “It’s not that.” Toward the end of the interview, Groening spoke about how well Netflix was treating him and how “progressive” the organization was. “There was no censor calling us up and saying you can’t say that or do that,” Groening said, praising Netflix compared with network television. I then brought up the Apu controversy, at which point the Netflix publicist, monitoring the interview, abruptly cut the interview short and disconnected the call. No doubt Groening appreciated the irony. --Brad Wheeler