WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the second season of Disenchantment, which returns Friday on Netflix.
Disenchantment is, somehow, both ambitious and aimless in its second season, working best when it expands the world and explores it with a more engaging Bean (Abbi Jacobson). But a strong start to the season, and an intriguing climax, can't make up for the otherwise dull and lackluster middle stretch of episodes.
Disenchantment picks up where the first season left off, with the cast separated and their fantasy world in shambles. Bean has been tricked by her recently restored mother Dagmar (Sharon Horgan) into leaving Dreamland behind. She's unaware that Dagmar turned everyone in Dreamland -- except for King Zøg (John DiMaggio) -- to stone, and even captured Bean's demonic best friend, Luci (Eric Andre).
On top of all that, Bean is desperate to find a way to bring Elfo (Nat Faxon) back to life after his demise in the previous season. The early stretch of the season is arguably the best the series has ever been, giving the story a real sense of scope. It also adopts a tempo that befits the tone of the series, covering a lot of narrative ground quickly and with a good sense of humor and creativity.
Bean has developed enough into a crafty but crude take on the fantasy heroine archetype to stand out as a character, and her sheer curiosity makes her a compelling lead in these stretches of the narrative. The worldbuilding here (along with a surprising new location in the penultimate episode of the season) is the best the show has ever attempted. Part of that is because the show has forward momentum and an overarching storyline here. The story arc to save Elfo and Dreamland is when the show pushes itself and reveals what it could be. That's when Disenchantment works best, leading its take on the typical fantasy protagonist through a charming, silly, epic quest.
It's when the show slows down that the cracks begin to show. The series shifts from the narrative-driven first chunk into a more episodic (and honestly, dull) second half. These episodes largely separate Bean from her friends, relying on "sitcom tropes in a fantasy world" plots instead of expanding the characters and their world. To the show's credit, these moments do show how much the writing for Bean has improved. The writing staff gives her (and Zøg for that matter) a genuine sense of bittersweet survival and sadness that adds a strong layer to the character.
Both Bean and Zøg take any chance they have to distract themselves from the emptiness they feel about Dagmar coming back just to betray them. But it never ends up working, and there are no easy means to make that hurt go away. It's all genuinely mature and unexpected, but well-constructed. Bean even gets a particularly strong moment of introspection while trying to figure out how to write as a means of expressing her emotions that works remarkably well. It's a shame then that the rest of the cast doesn't receive a fraction of that depth.
Bean's oft-forgotten brother Derek (Tress MacNeille) gets some marginal development in regards to his optimism and abandonment issues, but he's otherwise brushed to the side except when he can be used for the plot. Worse, Elfo and Luci get almost no memorable material to play with after the initial arc of the season. Luci, in particular, turns into a watered-down version of Bender from Matt Groening's previous show, Futurama, which feels like a waste of the character and his initial role as the devil on Bean's shoulder.
Andre is great when he gets something to do, and even makes the softer side of the character believable. But the character spends a majority of the season involved in minor sitcom plots with Elfo that just distract from the more engaging material. Likewise, Elfo becomes more of an afterthought than a fully fleshed out character, losing most of his primary traits along the way. While many of the one-episode characters are memorable, the recurring supporting cast is largely forgettable at best or outright aggravating at worst. It's a weakness that plagues the middle episodes, drawing attention away from stronger material.
The penultimate episode of the season is the epitome of both the best and worst of the show. While Bean is exploring the world and struggling to balance her curiosity and cynicism in an exciting (but funny) take on a new realm, Luci and Elfo are involved in a bickering roommates storyline that feels like something they cut from a lackluster episode of Futurama. It's an occasionally ambitious and interesting show that is hindered by tired conventions and unfunny cutaways.
There's a strong show somewhere in Disenchantment, about a troubled but promising young woman trying to come into her own in a bizarre fantasy world. It's definitely an improvement on the previous season, which relied far too much on played out jokes and fantasy conventions instead of developing a story. But as long as it's constrained by the sitcom standards the creators keep imposing on it, it'll never become what it could be.
Disenchantment returns to Netflix on Sept. 20. The first season is now available to stream.