It's a romantic comedy that turns serious in the later stretches. Everyone's so damn self-sacrificing. It's basically tragedy in disguise. The writing's digging deeper and treating the situations more realistically than you'd have expected. The characters are sensitively portrayed and generally suppressing pain. Eventually it becomes clear that at least one heart will be broken, while it's not even guaranteed that the main couple will end up together. This show isn't fluffy wish-fulfilment. Ryuuji's home circumstances, for instance, might stop him from going to college, because his lovable loser mum won't let him take a part-time job and yet surely can't be earning enough on her own to pay college fees.
Even during the last episode, I couldn't tell whether or not a happy ending was coming. The show's skating so close to tragedy that both options are possible. In the end... well, make sure you watch the last post-credits sequence. Trust me, it's important.
In short, it's an excellent show. I'd recommend it, although be ready for its closing run of episodes to be a lot less fun than what went before.
Our heroes are Ryuuji Takasu and Taiga Aisaka. They make a couple almost immediately, but it's a platonic one because they're both in love with other people. It just so happens that they live next door to each other and Taiga is a human disaster area with a hair-trigger temper and no survival skills unless you count violence, while Ryuuji is a born housewife. (His infantile mother's job is "drinking in a bar" and his gangster father got killed after getting this teenager pregnant, so Ryuuji's basically had to act as his mother's surrogate parent.)
They're both playing against gender roles. Taiga is tiny and doll-like, but also ferocious, bad-mannered and capable of starting brutal, dirty fights to defend your honour. Ryuuji is cursed with his late father's intimidating looks, but his favourite thing in the world is housework and he takes cooking pretty seriously too.
Anyway, Taiga is in love with Yuusaku Kitamura (student council vice-president, diligent, good-natured, wears glasses). Ryuuji is in love with Minori Kushieda (adorable, slightly bonkers, goes at 100 mph, energetic to the point of being manic). Taiga and Ryuuji vow to help with each other's love lives, but of course they get on so well together that you know the show's really going to be about them discovering each other. Even their classmates agree. This causes headaches for Taiga and Ryuuji when all the world assumes that they're dating, even though they're both trying to get romantic with someone else entirely. It's a reasonable assumption, though, since they spend all their time together and Ryuuji cooks for both of them, including their packed lunches at school.
There's also a fifth main character, who's in the title sequence from the beginning but first appears in ep.5. She's Ami Kawashima (sweet-natured bimbo on the surface, arrogant bitch underneath... well, at least until the others crowbar some character development into her).
The plot moves slowly, but in a way that works. It's actually an adaptation of a ten-volume light novel series, so there's a lot of meat on its storyline even if the show does take 25 freaking episodes to reach a conclusion that had been preordained since ep.2 (and had started getting character foreshadowing from not long after).
The cast are intelligent. They tend to see through their friends' elaborate schemes to set up something-or-other, even (or perhaps especially) if they'd been the targets. They're also capable of saying or thinking things that are harsh, but painfully incisive. They have hidden depths and they all get character development. Everyone looks like a familiar anime archetype at first, but then the show starts peeling back the layers. Kitamura's motives are mystifying until you eventually learn what's underneath them, for instance, after which it all makes perfect sense. Kawashima's character journey takes her the furthest (although Taiga's not far behind) and hers is also the most delicate tragedy, in that I think she always knew she was doomed to fail in what she was hoping for.
The show's usually very entertaining. It can be slightly hard to watch when it really starts digging under its characters' skin, but most of the time it's just plain fun. Minori is a scene-stealing delight. Taiga is a pint-sized engine of destruction and always great to watch, whether solo or with Ryuuji. (Not all fans find her likeable, mind you. If you knew her in real life, you'd duck.) Meanwhile their teacher is slightly worrying as she goes from black comedy desperation to black comedy despair, tipping on her thirtieth birthday. (Interestingly, though, she's always a reliable, efficient teacher.)
Are these people adults or children? The question is often asked and always answered differently. (You could ask the same question of their parents.) There's an odd study of classroom sociology, in which people can become legends for the most eccentric reasons, often against their will.
Visually, the show's great... but it has a couple of budget crunches, both unfortunately in key scenes. Ep.16 and to a lesser extent ep.23 have moments where the art's so cheap that I'm slightly shocked they didn't redo them for the DVD.
Not to be mistaken for Durarara!! (also on my DVD shelf, confusingly). I've been muddling up those two titles for years.
I'd known that this show was popular, but I hadn't been expecting something this well-written. It's quite heavyweight. It breaks characters. It shows us their fragility and their vulnerability when things go wrong (including self-generated problems that wouldn't have existed had our heroes been more selfish or disloyal). A lot of anime is basically light escapism, but this is basically a 25-episode novel. However it's also sweet, entertaining and good for lots of laughs.