Season 1 of Disney’s The Owl House: Wasted Potential?

I’ve been looking forward to the Owl House since it was announced back in early 2018. Everything about the show seemed right up my alley: a girl isekai’d into a horror-themed fantasy world where she becomes an apprentice in magic to a sassy mentor “owl witch”.

Now that season one is finished, I feel like I can more confidently articulate my feelings about the show. The strongest feeling is disappointment; I think I perhaps held some unrealistic expectations, or was  anticipating the show being something that it’s not. I think this covers some of my chagrin, but at the same time, I find it hard to deny that some parts of TOH are just kind of… lackluster, as far as plot and themes go.

There are several tension points established throughout the season that are just sort of negated in the following episodes. Probably the most blatant one being the Owl Lady Eda’s status as the “most wanted criminal” on the Boiling Isles. The first few episodes establish that the authorities-that-be in this world are constantly hunting her down, so she has to move about clandestinely and live in a secluded area. Tensions ratchet up even more when Eda\’s younger sister Lilith is revealed to be working for said authorities. But after the initial encounter (and an admittedly well-animated fight scene), their subsequent interactions end up being pretty pedestrian, with no strong indication that Lilith, or by extension the Emperor she works for, actually care about taking her into custody. The tension deflates with a confused farting sound.

The protagonist Luz is a human, which are generally non-existent in this weird demon realm. It’s implied that there are numerous powerful entities with dark intentions that might hunt her down if she’s publicly revealed. Once again, the tension is increased when Luz desires to sneak into the Isle’s magic school to continue her training, putting this secret in jeopardy. Humans’ mythologized status in the world is further illustrated by the “Human Appreciation Club” that the school has; of course, the climax of one episode is Luz’s humanness being revealed to the school, and by extension to the rest of the realm at large. And the consequences for that are… mild to non-existent? The headmaster makes an exception for her, allowing her to matriculate as a student, and after that no one really reacts in ways appropriate to the equivalent of a martian showing up at a local high-school.

These moments of what feel like self-sabotaged plot are still more numerous, affecting almost every major character in the cast. King is implied to be the diminished form of some more powerful demon, trapped in an ironically-adorable body (and personality). But his character plays to that one trope for so long it’s hard to remember if he’s really supposed to be anything else. It’s revealed that Amity is mercilessly tormented by her two older siblings who even manipulate Luz into their schemes, but a few eps later they’re all just sort of hanging out like school chums, devoid of the expected tension they took the time to build up. It’s a plot-based show that feels like it’s following the rules for a serialization with an episodic narrative, resetting character dynamics and plot points to an initial state each time.

For me personally, these constant squanderings of narrative tension make it hard to stay immersed. Furthermore, the show doesn’t do enough with the thematic freedom it’s given. It starts with a neat concept; an alternate-dimension fantasy world, spiced up by being equal parts macabre and goofy. There are moments throughout the season where it hits the mark, but the theme so often settles for a kind of banal parallel of typical modern life, lightly satirized with horror themes. It doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it’s a fantasy world, nor does it go to the effort of using the fantasy to examine or critique reality. All of the great concepts that go into it, or could go into it, are quickly diminished and fade into the background. At the end of the day, their magic school isn’t at all different from a typical tv-show high school. A neighborhood playground (despite nailing the thematic parody by calling it a “Slayground”), isn\’t functionally different from what you’d expect. Everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, just leaves you quietly wanting more from the show.

The Owl House has so much potential, but it just doesn’t step up to the plate. To be fair, I think all shows should be given some leeway in their first season to “find their voice” and whatnot. I do also think that the show might be aiming at a younger audience than I expected, which makes it lean harder into the episodic Aesop formula. But there’s a difference between doing that and doing it well. There are so many other shows with similar or even younger audiences that just rise to a higher level. I’d say that Craig of the Creek, Phineas and Ferb and We Bare Bears all do more with less, considering they’re confined to “the real world” and not a whole-cloth fantasy one.

That all being said, I want to differentiate between my critique and my personal opinion of the show. I do still like elements of the show, and plan to keep watching it, and hope that everyone on the show continues to be fulfilled in their work. I think overall the character designs are great (Eda and King especially), the voice acting is quality (how good it is to hear Alex Hirsch’s voice again!) and also I am very very here for the queer romance blossoming at the end of the season. And I’m glad to see that it’s building a strong following of fans that seem to think differently about the show than I do. I mostly just hope that Dana Terrace and her team find themselves in a good enough position with Disney and the various other stakeholders to really let loose with their talent and creativity. Here’s to another season!