Making a new fantasy TV show in the Game of Thrones era is a dragon-sized task. There’s no escaping comparison to the pop culture behemoth, no matter how different your show may be.
But legendary creator Matt Groening — who successfully parodied the family sitcom at its height with The Simpsons, only to later satirize the oversaturation of sci-fi in Futurama — is seemingly the perfect man for the job.
And it might explain why, in the very first episode of his new Netflix series Disenchantment, he literally impales a prince’s head on a throne of swords. For now, it’s the only direct reference he wants to make to the HBO phenomenon in a show that’s all about twisting fantasy tropes.
“We only have a reference to Game of Thrones in the beginning because I knew people would be wanting that, and I wanted to get it out of the way,” Groening told Mashable.
He means no disrespect to the HBO hit. Actually, he used to watch Game of Thrones just like everyone else — until he started working on Disenchantment three years ago.
“I didn’t want to be influenced by it. It’s such a huge part of our culture and what they do, they do so well,” he said.
But the reality was that Groening’s more lifelong fantasy inspirations for the DNA of Disenchantment were classics like Monty Python, Fractured Fairy Tales, The Wizard of Oz. So he tried his best to lean into those, rather than jump on a more recent pop culture fantasy bandwagon.
“I had to flatout say: ‘This has nothing to do with Game of Thrones.'”
He paid a price for not watching Game of Thrones, though. When references to the show would be pitched in their writers room, Groening wouldn’t initially pick up on them. So he made a rule.
“I had to flatout say: ‘This has nothing to do with Game of Thrones.'” Yet people still tried to sneak it in occasionally, leading Groening to put his foot down even more. “No — we are not doing it!”
So perhaps there’s a more meta meaning behind the only Game of Thrones reference Groening permitting in Disenchantment. Like watching the Starks be brutally assassinated at the Red Wedding, the gag tells audiences to kill all the expectations we had going into this fantasy adventure.
On the surface level, Groening also just thought it was funny because, in his mind, accidental impalements “is what should happen” if people fight over a throne made of swords.
Groening and co-creator Josh Weinstein still had plenty to work with outside of Game of Thrones, though.
“It’s just fun to take the rules of fantasy and turn them upside down. Specifically with fantasy worlds that take themselves very seriously, [Disenchantment] gives us permission to say, ‘No you can be silly about this.'”
Accidental impalements “is what should happen” if people fought over a throne made of swords.
This attitude is evident in another joke in the series. There’s a mixup when a character doesn’t know whether a reference to a talking animal is meant to be taken literally or figuratively. He begins to rant about why this is why strict rules are a necessity for fantasy world, otherwise it lead to confu— but nope. Before the critique can be finished, he’s murdered by a flaming arrow to the chest.
When it comes to worldbuilding rules, Groening said they’re using a tactic similar to futurama Futurama: There’s no limit to the bizarre, magical, rule-breaking situations they can put their characters in. It only matters that those characters react to those situations like real people would.
That’s what actors Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and Eric Andre (The Eric Andre Show) bring to the table. She plays Bean, the uneducated, crude drunkard of a teen princess. He plays a literal demon who’s just a fun dude to hang out with rather than evil incarnate.
“That boundary of keeping our characters relatable narrows the wide range of jokes you can tell, but ultimately we’ve found it’s better to go real in fantasy,” he said.
Ironically, that’s almost the exact philosophy behind author George R. R. Martin’s approach to fantasy, and a big reason why Game of Thrones felt so accessible to mainstream audiences. It’s also not the only accidental similarity between the two creators’ perspectives on the genre, either.
Groening said that, more than any of his previous shows, Disenchantment puts plot and serialized story arcs before jokes. It was a possibility opened up by the shift from a cable network cartoon to a streamed one.
There’s a mystery that unfolds throughout the ten episode season. And there’s hidden clues snuck in, so attentive viewers can piece the puzzle for themselves if they’re watching closely enough.
“The nature of fantasy is that things are not what they seem,” said Groening. “We’ve done a pretty skillful job at hiding stuff, though I know it’s all going to get found out right away.”
The irony once again is that, unbeknownst to Groening, George R. R. Martin knows a thing or two about how obsessive fan theorizing can ruin the hard work of a creator leaving bread crumbs meant to only tease future plot twists.
Groening may have done his best to avoid Game of Thrones in Disenchantment. But like a White Walker army breaking through the Wall, winter came to him anyway.
Disenchantment premieres on Netflix Aug. 10.
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