The weirdest thing about this show, for me, is the fact that it's an original anime. I'd have sworn it was adapted from a much longer manga or novel series and compressed down to fewer episodes than it deserved, thus infuriating the original's fans... but no. It really was written to be like this.
Schizophrenic pacing. Brave characterisation. Plot decisions that are pretty much guaranteed to wrongfoot much of the fanbase, at least Western ones. It's a bumpy ride, but I admire it.
It's a superhero show, but only sort of. That's the first subversion if you're a Western fan. These powers aren't wish-fulfilment, but instead are a disease that will wear off by the time you've left high school, are usually broken in some fundamental way and will get you and your loved ones targeted by criminals and the government. Example powers include:
(a) barely controllable super-speed that always ends with you smashing into a wall
(b) invisibility... but only from the point of view of one person. Everyone but your target will be able to see everything as you, say, beat the living daylights out of this person who can't fight back.
(c) the ability to make buildings collapse... while you're in them. This power can manifest against your will.
Imposing a standard superhero reading on this series will lead you to conclude that its message is "reject what makes you special and instead just desire to be like everyone else". This will become downright offensive if you're going for an X-Men homosexuality metaphor, but fortunately to do this would be to ignore pretty much everything the show's actually saying.
The tone is harsh, although not grim. It can be light and funny too. Nonetheless ep.1 introduces us to a thoroughly unlikable piece of scum... who's the main character. His name's Yuu Otosaka. He's a selfish, cheating, smug git who treats other people as objects, although in fairness he's kind to his little sister. Fortunately for the show's watchability, though, he soon runs into some people who have his number. The show then settles into something of a formula. Yuu becomes merely unfriendly and I even started worrying that the characterisation might have lost its teeth, despite scenes where Yuu just stands by and watches as bullies beat up a girl. (Her name's Nao and she's as unsentimental as him.)
The show's first half has a Superpower Of The Week formula. The Hoshinoumi Academy student council (and Yuu) go after some teenager who's using their power unwisely (i.e. at all). The people they help are always ungrateful, motivated and hard to handle.
I should have shown more faith in the writer. Yuu is capable of... well. I won't give away any spoilers, but that was extreme. Push him hard enough and he'll go to a place where you seriously think he's going to kill some stranger.
The storyline then goes apeshit. The show stops being slow and a bit repetitive. Instead, it starts changing everything we knew. The last five episodes have enough plot and revelations for an entire series and would probably have worked better at that length. My notes have an all-caps "what the hell?" or equivalent for all of them. The show goes at such a pace that I think it ends with at least one bit of backstory untold. (What's the deal with that blind singer? I'd been assuming there was a story behind her condition that would end up tying in with the rest of the plot, but no. Did I miss something?) Similarly the departure of SPOILER in ep.12 is brisk, to the point of being almost jarring. They still get memorable emotion from it, thanks to that letter, but even so you'd have expected a story development like that to get more screen time.
It's dark in multiple ways you won't have expected from the early episodes. That said, I found the tone more consistent than did my anime-watching friend at work. He wouldn't have been surprised had ep.1 been the start of a comedy (!), while his take on ep.13 was darker than mine. I see optimism there, once you've got past the gruelling near-destruction of someone's identity and sanity. But in a good way. Sort of.
This series has got me interested in another Jun Maeda show, incidentally. Charlotte is the second original anime series from visual novel studio Key, with the first one being Angel Beats in 2010. That sounds intriguing. Sad, but not in a depressing way. I think.
I admire this show, but I don't think it's always that easy to love. It's deliberately making unsympathetic choices in the characterisation, even if this is later used as the starting point for character growth. I also think the episode length constrains it. That's the most obvious criticism in the world, but it's true. There's a Yuu-related revelation that would have better off being dramatised, for instance, instead of simply being told. It's effectively been info-dumped. Entire story arcs get told in less than an episode. That said, though, the show knows how to be entertaining and funny, even sometimes cute. Yuu and Nao can be funny when they're acting like an old married couple, especially in the scenes with Yuu's sister.
I also like the way they create such a sharp-edged character in Yuu and then don't candyfloss him, despite the impression you might get at times. When he goes over the edge, he really goes over. See also how heroic he isn't in ep.11. However he really grows as a person, discovering things about the world, his friends and himself.
It's interesting. It's still a bit odd, mind you, and it's crying out for a remake with twice the episode count and a steadier pace. It's brave, though. It's a slightly tentative recommendation at best, but on general principles I approve of it.