It's quite entertaining, but also often bad, wrong-headed and/or pandering to the otaku audience in a forehead-slapping way that's going to seem embarrassingly dated within a couple of years, tops.
It's a loose adaptation of the work of a Japanese mystery writer called Edogawa Ranpo. (That was a pen name, by the way, derived from "Edgar Allen Poe" said in a Japanese accent.) As his choice of literary idol suggests, his stories were pretty lurid. He liked murder mysteries, horror and twisted sexual angles that are still disturbing even today, fifty years after his death.
He sounds interesting. I don't like this anime, but it did spark my interest in its source material.
Unfortunately all this poses some problems for a modern anime adaptation. What tone do you go for? Might a faithful adaptation just seem a bit dull, like Subete ga F ni Naru? What was shocking in 1925 might not do the job in 2015. We have new ideas of sexual deviancy, especially in anime. (You don't want to know.) This show has thus taken extreme liberties, sometimes changing so much that there's nothing left but the title and the ongoing regular cast of Kobayashi, Hashiba and Akechi Kogoro. That I don't mind. Unfortunately, though, they've also made the show a lot more stupid and burdened it with unwatchable female characters.
Going into detail will involve spoilers, by the way.
Firstly, the ongoing female cast. They're annoying. Admittedly the original stories's heroes are all male, which I'd agree could usefully be fixed in a modern adaptation, but including characters like this isn't a step forward. Kobayashi's replacement teacher is a super-cutesy 32-year-old airhead who looks and sounds like a twelve-year-old. She doesn't belong in this show. She's an escapee from feather-brained harem nonsense and every second of her screen time is torture. (This is supposedly a dark, twisted detective series.) Admittedly there are hints of something less fluffy in the cuts you might glimpse on her wrist, but the show never takes this anywhere and in practice she's just a grating anime cliche.
Then there's Minami, the medical examiner. She's a cartoon from a kid's TV show who goes berserk to camera when doing her job.
Finally there's Black Lizard. Technically she's from the original Edogawa stories, where she was an elegant mistress of crime with an exhibitionist streak. Here, though, she's a shrieking one-note sexual obsessive in a stripperiffic outfit, who's chained up in prison and only lives to offer her body to Akechi as often and as explicitly as possible. She also has a urination problem, gargantuan boobs and cleavage that could give you bathophobia. I found myself getting annoyed not only by her scenes, but by scenes that mentioned her.
Those are the stupid female characters. Now for the stupid writing.
Firstly, 'The Human Chair' (eps.1-2). MASSIVE SPOILERS COMING! This anime two-parter has a man who turns girls into chairs. (It was different in Edogawa's original story.) That's a horrific idea. It's pretty twisted. What broke it for me, though, was the revelation that these girls had wanted to be killed, skinned and furniturised. He'd done it to four of them and he got murdered by number five out of jealousy when he fell in love with someone else and decided he didn't love her enough to turn her into upholstery.
These are just ordinary schoolgirls, by the way. They're in Kobayashi's class. I didn't believe it for a moment. I'm not saying you couldn't sell it to an audience, but you'd need to go far darker, scarier and more intimate than this. Get it right and your audience might never sleep again. Get it wrong, though, and you'll have... well, these two episodes. I don't think they were even really trying to convince me. (Come to think of it, that's another example in this show of bad writing for female characters.)
A more central problem, though, is the show's premise. Its subtitle ("A Game of Laplace") refers to Laplace's demon, a thought experiment about determinism by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1814. The baddie has written a computer program that models the real world so perfectly that he can use it to turn people into murderers.
Now, of course, determinism is bollocks. It assumes that if you knew the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe, you'd be able to calculate everything that's going to happen for the rest of time. In practice chaos theory shoots this down, although theoretically it's possible to argue that Laplace's demon knows everything in the universe to infinite precision and so wouldn't get even the infinitesimal errors required for chaos theory. (The universe doesn't exist to infinite precision, by the way.)
The anime knows all this, perhaps after reading about it on wikipedia. It's trying to update Edogawa, so it's dragging in chaos theory as if this somehow validates its deterministic model of the universe rather than shooting it down. They have a butterfly flapping around and everything. We also have the even more fundamental issue that this is a deterministic equation of human behaviour, where all the variables are human beings. I repeat: human behaviour. Ummm... no.
I didn't believe it. I cry "horseshit".
Now we have the regular cast, who are all schoolboys. Akechi Kogoro (older in the original stories) is a morose, unlikeable, negative git. Kobayashi though is actually quite chirpy and engaging, which makes for an interesting contrast with his pathological boredom and autistic disinterest in other people. (He and Akechi both see the rest of humanity as featureless shapes if they're not paying attention.) Kobayashi I liked. Then there's Hashiba, who's fairly dull but at least has regular emotions and reacts to things like a human being. He's also secretly in love with Kobayashi.
Despite all that, though, the show's not a write-off. Often it's decent. There are a fair few episodes that tell good stories. Ep.5 is a bit on the predictable side, but still satisfyingly dark. Ep.3 is evil. Ep.8 is another worthwhile episode. There's plenty of imaginatively gruesome body horror. If you think bad things shouldn't happen to children in fiction, avoid this show.
I also enjoyed ep.6, which is a comedy interlude. Lots of bad things happen to Akechi, including a bomb, a kitten and Paper Bag Man. To my surprise, grumpy Akechi is great as a comedy foil for a universe that's decided to hate him.
This series isn't a dead loss at all. Most of the time it's a perfectly decent adaptation of one of Japanese's most famous authors. I watched it all. I often enjoyed it. I like Paper Bag Man, for instance. However it makes some decisions I really dislike, while I was boggling at its conflation of chaos theory and determinism. I couldn't recommend it, I'm afraid.