This is really two seasons (Jan-April and July-Oct), but I watched them all at once and so I'm reviewing them together. In short: it's great. I'd dithered before watching it:
It's an idol show!
But I enjoyed ep.1.
But it's an idol show!
Obviously the idol world is shallow and cringeworthy. The TV variety shows here are vapid, while some of the cutesy posing would in real life make you want to kill. Bunnyears girl from Planet Bunnyears, for instance. Good grief. Fortunately, though, the show's portraying the business as a business, not a religious calling. It's brisk, down-to-earth and funny. It's also based on a mobile phone game where you're the idols' producer, so the focus is just as much on choosing the girls' performing partners, handling their occasional meltdowns, getting them work and making sure they don't screw it up, etc.
The cast is huge. It's nowhere near the game's level (over 200 idols!), but our nameless Producer will be in charge of fourteen girls, with still more being managed by his colleagues. What's more, everyone's distinctive. Some of them are loons. Collect them all together and you'll have a goofball mob who can carry pretty much any scene just on their bubbly interactions. The first three girls are Uzuki (earnest, slightly fragile, determined to be positive), Rin (cool, not initially interested) and Mio (ambitious, the leader), but the whole cast comes across strongly. I'm impressed. The show makes it work. Plenty of shows struggle to do a tiny fraction of that. Everyone gets some limelight and the show practically ends up telling a story with almost two dozen protagonists, with almost everyone getting significant story roles. My personal favourites include:
ANZU - so lazy that she'll wear her favourite shirt saying "if you work, you lose" even when she's on TV. You'd need a fork lift truck to get her off the sofa. However she's also a natural on TV, with an adorable dormouse charm and deceptive intelligence. She's seventeen and so older than most of the others, but she looks about ten.
KIRARA - huge. The Producer's a big man who looks suspicious around teenage girls and is often stopped by the police... but Kirara's as tall as him. Seeing her with other idols is like seeing Hagrid with Hermione, Ron and Harry. She's also seventeen, although that's just her physical age. She talks like a four-year-old and she's as brilliantly natural as Anzu, because she has no filters and projects feeblemindedness at full blast. What you see is what you get, wibbling on about "happy-happy". When she and Anzu get together in Season 2, it's a partnership that could rule TV for decades.
RANKO - gothic-loli chuunibyou and ham, talking so much gibberish that it's effectively a foreign language. Producer: "Isn't the sky pretty?" Ranko: "The scorching flames of hell sear my flesh." He's a saint for sticking with her.
There's a rock chick and an inane cutesy-pie who's addicted to cat ears. For impenetrable reasons, the Producer combines them as a duo. Result: permanent conflict. (Cat-Ears Cutesy is also super-competitive and takes it personally when she's not in the first wave of girls getting their debut, so starts challenging Mio to bizarre duels.) There's a Russian girl. There's a brat who worships her sexy older sister, who's been a highly successful idol for some time. Season 1 is basically the Producer letting these girls loose and trying to control their nerves, inexperience and misplaced expectations. It's hugely entertaining and mostly just fun. There's a serious break-up at one point (if not necessarily permanent), but essentially this is light comedy/drama.
The Producer is great too. It's often a problem deciding what to do with the player characters in anime game adaptations. Some shows edit them out (Kantai Collection) or make them personality-free (Persona 4), but here they've created a character who almost immediately became a fan favourite. He's an inarticulate lump who keeps saying "trust me" while seeming on the verge of screwing up. He can't talk informally. (When the girls ask him to, he fails.) He really cares about his charges and he's their fiercest ally, but he's a dork. (There's also no romance, thankfully, unless you count that hilarious scene in the OVA where the girls are playing matchmaker.)
Season 1 is a laugh, but Season 2 is more serious. 346-Pro's executive producer appears, Mishiro. I call her the queen bitch from hell, the witch or the vampire. She's actually very good at her job, in her own narrowly defined ways, but she's a control freak who crushes individuality. She doesn't give the idols themselves any input and she thinks building projects around their personalities is too inefficient. Her first executive order is to cancel all current projects and her plan is to create international brand names out of what are essentially a bunch of inexperienced teenagers. (Idols are young. If you've reached your twenties, it's time to start thinking about your post-idol career.) She's a nightmare and she's at the top level of management. After promising to let the Producer do a show his way with no interference, she starts poaching his talent and damaging his girls' confidence. Personally I don't think she understands people. She wants results now. She undermines successful TV shows because they don't fit her image-planning, even though I thought the most impressive thing our heroines ever did was to use that variety experience to improvise an unscripted comedy fill-in when an insanely huge stage show goes wrong. Anyone would have been terrified. That's a stadium audience big enough to invade Poland. (That's in ep.22.)
All this is less fun than Season 1. It's more serious, at times a little oppressive. However it's also inspiring to see the girls facing these new challenges (to put it mildly) and using them to improve themselves. There are some genuinely strong episodes, e.g. ep.17 and what it means to be a professional who's had her identity taken away from her. I also admired the Rock Girls' ep.19. Similarly, when Mishiro smashes up established partnerships, it's because she's seen new potential in the girls in question and she's often right.
Not all fans like the new tone of Season 2. It's no longer just a laugh. It can feel autumnal, or even mildly painful. However it's clearly far stronger dramatically and I thought it was excellent. Don't be fooled by its subject matter. This is an intelligent, thoughtful show. Note what it does with its Cinderella metaphor, for instance, which I'd assumed was just title garnish. Not so. The show ends up exploring it in detail and reinventing the Cinderella story far more literally than I'd have ever expected. The "prince" at the end made me laugh out loud.
Is the show perfect? No, of course not. There's an IQ drop for the silly first episode of Season 2. However I think it's one of the best anime of the year.