Thursday, March 31, 2016

[Anime] Clannad After Story Review

Clannad After Story is an extension of the Clannad original series, moving from a story of friends in high school to the beginnings of adult life.  This is a rare move for series of this type, as they are rooted firmly in adolescent drama and nostalgia and cannot risk moving beyond these themes.  After Story attempts to tackle this transition, and on many occasions succeeds well.  Unfortunately, it also carries with it many of the elements that hobbled Clannad which, in light of the increased seriousness of the content, makes their presence all the more jarring.  Because of these similarities this review will echo my review of Clannad on many points.

The Good:

As with Clannad, when the series didn't become excessive (more on that below), it was genuinely touching.  The highlight of After Story is Nagisa's death and the subsequent episodes in which Tomoya grapples with the aftermath.

The greatest daring of After Story is that Nagisa dies.  One of the two main characters, one that you have come to know throughout Clannad and After Story, is gone.  Even for somebody such as myself, who had been spoiled beforehand, the move was significant.  To actually remove a main character while there are still so many episodes to resolve is exceedingly rare, and for good reason.  People are invested in them, and when that character is suddenly gone they are forced to confront the aftermath.  This is why the timing in Nagisa's death is key.  Many series will casually kill off main characters near the end, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that it is the end.  But Nagisa's passing halfway through forces both Tomoya and the audience to confront the fact that life goes on.

It is during this process of recovery that After Story is the most meaningful, revisiting its core themes of family and the importance of connections between people.  After Nagisa's death Tomoya becomes a hollow shell as he withdraws from everybody around him, abandoning his child to the care of Sanae (Nagisa's mother).  But after several years he is forced to confront Ushio, to reconnect with his daughter, and so be brought back to life as he realizes how much his actions have impacted not just himself but all those around him.  It is during this resurrection that he also gains a new appreciation for those around him.  The three best elements during this arc of the series were:
  • Closure with Naoyuki Okazaki: Tomoya's coming to terms with his father is handled very well.  Nothing is more frustrating in a series than when a character reconnects with an abusive figure through reinterpretation rather than understanding.  That is, in an attempt to explain why the audience should now care about the formerly "evil" human being, a series will offer up a feeble back story to explain why they weren't actually bad.  They were just misguided.  Or trying too hard.  Or had some tragedy that justified their harshness.  This approach is simplistic, hinging on the assumption that a person is singularly good or evil.  It cheapens earlier suffering because now it must be glossed over in a feeble attempt to say, "But they didn't really mean it!"

    Naoyuki was an alcoholic.  He was abusive at times.  He got into shady, illegal business.  He was lost.  But he tried his best for his son even as it cost him everything.  This last point doesn't excuse what he did, and the series doesn't say so either: Naoyuki's own mother comments that he was a failure as a human in many ways.  In rediscovering his father Tomoya doesn't find a good man underneath.  Instead he is finally able to understand why, despite everything, Naoyuki always had a bafflingly friendly smile toward his estranged son.  It was only now that Tomoya had lost so much that he could finally see his father for who he was.
  • The strength of Sanae Furukawa: Sanae is treated frivolously through much of the series, but this belies her true nature.  When Tomoya abandoned his life, it was Sanae that stepped in and raised her granddaughter even while suffering from the loss of her own precious child.  It was Sanae that put Ushio's wellbeing above her own loss.  This scene highlights her resolve beautifully, as Akio remarks that Sanae had not cried since Nagisa's passing.  She raised Ushio in a home of happiness rather than mourning, and there is nothing more to say.
Finally, as I close out this segment I want to tip my hat to how clean the series is.  Repeatedly in the past I have decried fan service as one of the perennial downfalls of good series.  Clannad (and After Story) avoids any sense of voyeurism by taking this more reserved approach.  In some ways, it may even go too far in the other direction: we never see the protagonists do more than hug each other, which is not very realistic in light of their relationship.  However, I will take this over a lurid romance that would have detracted from the series' underlying focus.

The Bad:

While all of my praise goes to the middle of the series, the first eight episodes and the last plot episode (22) are, for lack of a better word, garbage.

The first eight episodes are painfully incongruous with the rest of the series.  They take place while the characters are still in high school and are far less mature than the rest of After Story.  The whole is diminished for their presence. The episodes in which the rival gangs made up struck me as particularly inane.  These episodes belonged with Clannad and its high school antics, not the transition to maturity that After Story was supposed to be.  I could only give a sigh of relief when they were over.

However, as frustrating as the first episodes are at least I could pretend they were part of another series.  But episode 22, coming at the end, utterly and completely negates the entire meaning and purpose of the anime.  In the final episodes a reconciled Tomoya is living with his daughter, but she is beginning to show the same signs of sickness that Nagisa did.  As Ushio gets more and more ill the series darkens again, and finally in a tearjerker scene she dies as well.  But, through the magic of...being a light novel with latent magical elements, the good karma of Tomoya rewinds time, Nagisa lives, everybody's happy, the end.

I cannot over emphasize how detrimental this cop-out is.  If it was not abundantly clear, Nagisa's death is the pivotal driving force for the best parts of the show.  Without her death Tomoya would have never grown into the man he is at the end.  He would never have reconciled with his father or viewed his mother-in-law as anything other than a fixture.  He would have remain emotionally stunted, a short-tempered teenager with a chip on his shoulder.  More than this, we lose the message that life involves pain, but continues anyway.  Before this excessively tragic end, the hope remained that there was a path out of dark places.  By attempting to go back and whitewash everything to be happier, episode 22 completely fails the series and undermines the power of Clannad's message.

This brings me to the other point, and that is that Ushio's death is utterly unnecessary.  Ushio was designed to be weapons-grade adorable.  Everything about her design and mannerisms screams "cute."  Too cute, really, considering we never once see her misbehave or act in a way that isn't formulated to evoke a sigh of affection.  Metaphorically, they fattened her up for the sacrifice.  While Nagisa's death was the catalyst that powered the story, Ushio's death is for no other reason than to evoke sorrow.  Cheaply at that, for she is functionally "dead" for less than 10 minutes of screen time before everything is magically fixed.  It is one of the most egregious cases of emotional pandering I have ever seen.

Finally, the same complaints I had about Clannad's inability to control the "emotional volume" and its tendency toward contrived and supernatural plot devices remain in force, although slightly more muted in After Story.  As I have already expounded on those in my Clannad review I am not going to spend the time here.

In summary, After Story follows in the same footsteps as Clannad: touching at key moments, but otherwise held back by its general mediocrity and deus ex machina resolution.

p.s. I think the ending I would have liked the most was if Tomoya had pursued his newfound relationship with Kyou and ended up marrying her.  It would have been a bittersweet conclusion to the series, with the memory of Nagisa slowly fading while his new life took off.  Shame we got the mess we did instead.

[Anime] Princess Tutu Review

Princess Tutu - 7.5/10

Princess Tutu is a traditional family friendly fantasy with modern finesse.  What is most charming about Princess Tutu is its earnest simplicity.  The setting is that of a fairy tale: princes are noble, princesses are beautiful, love is eternal, and dreams come true.  In a word, it sounds cheesy.  And yet, I found myself sucked into it as it executed its premise expertly.  While watching it I likened it to coming on a child playing make-believe.  At first you find yourself only patronizing them.  Clearly you know better; you just don't want to hurt any feelings.  But strangely, against your will, you find that the enjoyment is genuine and that perhaps you're not so superior after all.

I think the other key to appreciating Princess Tutu is just knowing that it isn't trying to be subtle or deconstructionist.  There are some twists and turns in the story that keep things interesting (more on that below), but these are merely the evolution of the genre.  They are not a grim negation of what has come before such as what Evangelion or Madoka aimed to do for mecha and magical girl respectively.

Finally, where I watched the series only had the English dub.  At first I considered this a bad thing but it grew on me rapidly. The anime has such a Western tone that hearing it in English seems natural after a short time. In addition, Luci Christian knocks it out of the park with her performance as Ahiru/Duck; after just a couple of episodes I had a hard time imagining this character with any other voice.

The Good:
First, let's get the obvious out of the way: the music.  The entire series is based on various ballets, and many of the episodes feature orchestral music to match.  I am far from being an expert on the pieces, but I did enjoy them as they added some variety to each episode.

Next, I'd like to tip my hat to the child characters.  I normally criticize young characters in anime, saying time and time again how the choice of adolescents is to the detriment of the plot.  This is one of the few series where I would say the age choice is entirely appropriate.  The simpler emotional structure of the series would be drivel if coming from adults, but from 12-14-year-olds it is more believable.  Fakir's development in particular fits the mold perfectly, although the arc they took him on was unexpected.

And finally, I would like to give some praise to Princess Tutu's plot.  The most surprising thing about it was the lack of major plot twists.  They told us from the earliest episodes what would happen: Tutu returns the shards, Prince fights Crow, the story ends happily.  Drosselmeyer isn't reinterpreted as the good guy, the Crow isn't secretly a tragic figure.  But what makes the plot different are the small wrinkles thrown in along the way:
  • Tutu doesn't end up with Myuuto as his princess.  She reverts to a duck with no special powers.  I was confident that a way would be found to avoid her fate, that she would overcome her inability to confess her love and live happily ever after.  Instead she really does sacrifice her abilities, fulfilling her mission in spite of her fear, and ends with no regrets.  When reading others' comments I found many to regard this as a negative result, but I found it to be a very sincere conclusion to the anime.
  • Fakir's development was similarly surprising.  Most stories would resolve Fakir's plight by having him overcome this weakness and finding the courage to be a great knight.  Instead he finds out he really is a mediocre knight, and that his ability lies elsewhere.  Again like many of these modifications, it was simple but unexpected in light of traditional stories.
  • The events of the story are actually being written by Drosselmeyer, a character within that story.  While the story is intelligible without this aspect, it neatly explains why some of the coincidences occur, such as why people are saved at the last second and how they never quite give up.

    One interesting effect of this storybook setting is how easily we overlook the strangeness of the animal people wandering around town.  When first confronted with them I was surprised, but when the characters didn't act surprised I simply assumed there was an explanation.  At the end the series draws your attention to this oddity, reminding you that this is not normal and that no explanation was ever offered.  In short, it uses our own suspension of disbelief to trick us into accepting something outrageous.  A small, but delightful, twist to be caught in as the viewer.
  • Tutu doesn't use violence in any way.  I'm not sure if this was a personal surprise, but when some of the interactions turned ugly I expected her to break out some sort of special magic or something.  But no, her only power is emotional comfort.  It was an aspect of her personality that made so much sense but it was so easy to expect something otherwise.
This gives a taste of how the practical execution of these small modifications on a traditional framework kept Princess Tutu recognizable but fresh at the same time.

The Bad:
If I had to level a criticism at Princess Tutu, it is that there were some aspects that were overused.  Through the entire series, all 26 episodes, they skip Tutu's transformation scene once (it is in the second to last episode; trust me, I was watching).  This obviously isn't a major sin, but it reflects the fact that at times Tutu's scenes are remarkably repetitive.

Initially the repeated approach of Tutu showing up, asking them to dance, and solving their problems was to be expected.  It lays the foundations so when things don't always follow that formula later it has more impact.  After these deviations the second half of the series returns to this pattern as the corrupted Myuuto tries to steal the hearts of various girls and Tutu must save them.  Unfortunately, these situations were nearly identical, evoking a sense of déjà vu as similar scenarios are rehashed.  Entire episodes dedicated to flower girl or love-letter-carrying girl were unnecessary and made the middle of the series drag.

There are also some times where I would have to criticize the use of stills, again as part of the repetition issue.  However, I don't judge the series to harshly for this.  It is merely something I noticed.

In closing, Princess Tutu is a series that I feel doesn't get nearly enough recognition.  It might not sound or look like much at first, but it dances circles around many flashier series.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

[Anime] Shinsekai Yori Review

"[People are] forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate...inequalities under a mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn." - John Stuart Mill

Shinsekai Yori – 9/10

Shinsekai Yori is an engrossing tale that merges the intimacies of a coming-of-age story with the grander narrative of a future society molded by the necessities of humanity’s new powers.

In the future, every member of society is telekinetic.  It is more than being able to move large objects with their minds: humans are able to affect the subtle structure of the world around them with subconscious desire.  It is a level of control over our surroundings that far surpasses anything humanity has ever experienced.  On the surface this sounds like a utopia, for humans no longer need fear the world around them.  However, this immense Power has brought forth a terrifying reality: humanity’s greatest threat is now itself.

The strange truth is that the description I gave above is surprisingly close to the current state of affairs for humans in developed nations.  Almost all of our stress and want come from the actions of other human beings, not the environment.  If we lack it is not because of the inability to provide, and more than ever our fate is in our own hands.  This verisimilitude to our current state is what allows SSY to surpass being a simple supernatural-themed series about telekinetic children and cut to the heart of what makes society tick when it moves beyond the subsistence level.

"All the problems we face arise from the human mind."

The Good:

The strongest parts, if it was not already made clear, are the setting and exploration of themes using this futuristic society as a model.  It is world building at its finest, taking real principles and exploring their implications in a novel setting.

Foremost, there is the moral logic behind their community.  Killing children is generally considered wrong.  Yet early on we are presented with a situation in which this society watches them so closely, and judges their actions so harshly, that they can be disposed of on the basis of seemingly minor transgressions.  How is it that this “advanced” society can see this as justifiable in any way?

To understand, we must take a step back and examine morality in light of human society.  In biology, cooperation is a delicate balance between self-interest and group wellbeing.  Humans are no exception to this.  We give up some of the autonomy of living singly for the benefits of living socially.  Our moral structure reflects this, with a mixture of individual and group values that are often in conflict with one another.  Our modern concept of “rights” is an attempt to formalize the line which societies cannot cross; rules of thumb rather than laws of nature.

In our 21st century democracies we have come to prize individualism more than any other group of humans in history.  We have this luxury due to the immense improvements science and technology have wrought; there is little need for any of us to sacrifice to ensure the whole survives.  But this was not always the case.  In tribal cultures, infanticide is commonplace.  This isn’t due to callousness or misguided superstition.  It is a response to necessity: if the tribe cannot support more people, then it risks starvation by supporting too many mouths that cannot feed themselves.  The needs of the whole must outweigh those of a single life, regardless of what “rights” they have.

A distant mirror.

The world of SSY bears a greater resemblance to the tribal condition than our own.  In this situation a single child with dubious qualities may result in a catastrophe.  Even a single failure can result in the annihilation of their society.  It is a risk that their own history has shown is not worth taking.  As repugnant as their behaviors seem to us, there is a strong justification for why it must be the way it is.  It is we, as 21st century viewers, who are misguided by our long acquaintance with individualism.  For the elders to pursue a sort of hopeful carelessness, praying that the worst does not happen, is far more inexcusable than the policies they pursue.

The presentation of this moral structure is another of SSY’s strengths.  The narrative pursues a purposeful misrepresentation of the situation through the eyes of the children.  We are so easy to trick, falling into the trap that surely the children must be the ones in the right.  After all, who doesn’t assume the little trip up the river, beyond the barrier, was nothing more than harmless fun?  Or that when the censorship of the past is discovered, that it was clearly unnecessary and malign?  And of course, we are all hoping that Maria and Mamoru escape the town and live happily, away from the vile clutches of the Education Committee.

Yet as it becomes clear later: these events are what directly led to Shun’s mental disintegration, the Monster Rat rebellion, and the Messiah fiend.  The adolescents, rather than seeing things in a clearer fashion, were dangerously ignorant of their world.  Their well-intentioned fumbling was the catalyst for disaster.  It was a testament to the quality of the series that it causes us to sympathize with the protagonists while having them in the wrong.  However, blended with the true faults of the society (its dehumanization of the Monster Rats, the miscalculations on the part of the committee) it is not a simple message about trusting authority, but a more nuanced insight into what drives them to do what they do.

Something's not quite right with this...

Finally, I want to end this section with a tribute to my favorite character of the series: Squealer.  Squealer is not a likable character.  His appearance is unattractive.  His behaviors are a mixture of servile groveling, cowardice, and vindictive anger.  Even his name is pejorative.  Clearly he is inferior, we think.  And yet, just like how we are misled about the nature of the society, so are we placated easily by our assured superiority.

Squealer is both intelligent and cunning.  He is not a brave warrior like Kiroumaru, but a driven and idealistic rebel who cares deeply about his cause.  More disturbing to us, his beliefs are not without merit: he and his race are subject to gross inequalities, both under their own queens and the lordly “true” humans.  Seizing the opportunity presented to him, Squealer hoped to better the lot of all Monster Rats.

I do not seek to justify his terror tactics.  Like many revolutionaries before him, he views the potential good of his cause outweighing any evil done in its name.  However, the desperation of his situation and the power of his arguments cannot be ignored.  In one of the best scenes of the series, Saki asks him to apologize for all the deaths he was responsible for.  His retort is simple: he will happily apologize, if only she will apologize first for treating his kin like chaff.  The scene ends with no response.  For a more thorough analysis, I would recommend this post.

The Bad:

As excellent as Shinsekai Yori is, it has a couple noteworthy flaws.  The first is the overall quality of the animation, which noticeably dips on several occasions (the backgrounds remain striking, however).  Episode 5 in particular looks to be done by a different studio, and is frustratingly incongruous with the rest of the series.  However, I don’t wish to spend too much time haranguing on this; it simply makes me a little sad that SSY wasn’t given a better treatment.

There are also plot points that feel slightly forced for the sake of the overall story.  Many of these occur in the early episodes of the series while the children are stuck in the wilderness.  I was incredulous about the ease with which they gained access to the wandering library, bypassing all regulations by the simplest of threats.  The explanation as to how the children got all their powers back was equally convenient.  Finally, the odd menagerie of mutants and technology (gas pumps) that the Monster Rats had access to seemed out of place.

The Tokyo segment also has a distinct sense of being unnecessary.  While it does give an opportunity to become more acquainted with Kiroumaru, the series could have resolved just as effectively by remaining in Kamisu 66.  Overall it felt like more of a detour than a natural progression of the plot.  This and other parts don’t individually sink the series, but it does make it feel flimsy at certain points.

However, despite these shortcomings SSY is a marvelous piece that seamlessly links intriguing concepts of social morality with a harrowing story of children growing up in this brave new world.

[Anime] Kekkai Sensen Review

Kekkai Sensen – 7/10

Kekkai Sensen is the psychedelic journey of Leonard Watch in the upside-down world of a monster-infested New York.  Being sane gets you nowhere in this little corner of the world(s), leaving Leonardo (and the audience) to constantly to wonder what will happen next.  With a bit of action, a bit of drama, and a bit of comedy Kekkai Sensen is quite the ride.

Note: unlike usual, I will be using the character design plates when linking a picture of the person in question.  I do this because of the series' exceptional visual design is crucial, and random scenes are not as effective at conveying this.

The Good:

The visual design of Kekkai Sensen is one of its most striking, and strongest, elements.  The world it is set in is absurd, and the style matches this perfectly.  But it is more than simply being extreme or over-the-top: there is a great deal of love put into the details which craft the atmosphere.

First, any listing of Kekkai Sensen's visuals would be remiss if it didn't include the opening and closing songs:


An impressively long shot as the sun slowly dawns over the city, smoothly transitioning into a collage of pictures making up the otherworldly cloud that hangs over the city.  This quickly transmits a sense of scale and detail to the setting - that it is a vast city made of many individual stories, an impression reinforced by the subsequent scenes of the main characters walking through the vast and varied crowds.  While the latter parts were a bit more standard fare, I still greatly enjoyed this OP.


The ending credits take a somewhat different approach, focusing more exclusively on the myriad characters that make up the show.  What is impressive is how effectively the nature and relationships of the characters are expressed in such a short time.  From Klaus's stodgy clapping to Chain's reflexive punches at Zapp, it takes only a second to give us an immediate idea of the personalities involved.  What is particularly telling are the scenes in which Libra attempts to dance together.  Despite their best efforts they're all just a bit too individualistic to work in synchrony, but they get along just the same.

This strategy of efficient visual demonstration extends to the individual characters as well.  From Leo's pedestrian street clothes to Chain's plain suit to Klaus's gentlemanly jacket you can immediately assess the characters just on how they look.  Backing these visuals, each character is idiosyncratic, with a well-crafted set of quirks that easily identify them.  This extends even to minor characters such as Don Arlelelle Eurca Felgouche, who despite only featuring in a singe episode, is memorable.  When it comes to establishing characters through appearance and mannerisms, Kekkai Sensen is second to none.

To round out this section, I want to end with a discussion of a few of my favorites from the series, if simply because of how much I enjoyed watching them:
  • White: White was a joy to have on screen.  The attractive simplicity of her design combined with the smooth mixture of humor and seriousness in her personality produced a wonderful female lead.  What is even more shocking is that she is anime-original.  Usually when a character is introduced in this fashion they stand out painfully from the surroundings, a blistering sore on the series.  That White was so effortlessly integrated is a testament to her character.  I will genuinely miss her.
  • Klaus von Reinherz: My other favorite of the series, Klaus is the definition of "indomitable."  Typically in trying to demonstrate an unbreakable spirit a character is shown to go through predictable cycles of self-doubt, fear, and final desperate success by believing in themselves.  Klaus would have none of that.  He struggles (as in the “chess” episode), can be worried about the outcome (as when the barrier threatens to break), and can even lose (as against Black).  But each time he gathers his resolve quietly and steps forward again to do what must be done.  He was a perfect choice for the leader of Libra, a rock that everyone else could count on.
  • Chain Sumeragi: Chain is unusual in that despite her early introduction, she remains in the background for most of the series.  In spite of this, her essence is transmitted clearly.  Her attire is professional, her visage composed.  She is always there when needed but doesn't stick around for extra duty.  She isn't into heroics if she sees help is useless.  Yet another testament to Kekkai Sensen's ability to craft unique characters with limited cues.
  • Dog Hummer and Deldro Brody: I found these two genuinely entertaining, with just enough exposure that they didn’t wear out their welcome.  There isn't much more to say on them, except that their story was morbidly funny and their interactions bafflingly effective.

The Bad:

Above I praised the series' ability to match its tone with the general incoherence of the world it represents.  Unfortunately, this extended into the presentation of the plot as well.  In the beginning, when the series is primarily episodic, this wasn't an issue; why things were happening didn't really matter, and it was wrapped up every episode anyways.  Then the Blood Born are introduced, and in one episode go from being non-entities to the Big Evil that Libra has apparently opposing up until now.  This sudden shift is handled poorly, and what is otherwise a serviceable plot is confused by messy implementation.

The other major weakness of Kekkai Sensen was the inexplicable failure to extend its virtuoso character building to key players.  The worst offenders are Steven and K.K.  Like all members of the cast, they have detailed designs that convey their basic nature: Steven is a professional while K.K. is more exotic.  Both are clearly experienced, exhibited by their scars and casual demeanor.  Beyond this they never receive more explanation.

For many characters, this wouldn't be a problem; there are plenty of supporting members who are little more than an eccentric face.  But as the series draws to a conclusion these two receive screen time equal to the primary characters, yet we have nothing to go on.  I can't remember the first episodes they are featured in, their personalities, or their motivations.  Everybody else has blood powers, why are Steven's based on ice?  And where was K.K. for most of the series?  She acts familiar with the entire team, yet we never see her outside crucial plot scenes.  Nowhere are these defects more damaging than in the first encounter with the Blood Born, in which Steven and K.K. fight a desperate losing battle.  These two are humanity's first responders, giving valorous speeches and demonstrating their resolve in the face of this evil scourge.  But just as the introduction of the Blood Born was muddled by its abruptness, the heroics are weakened coming from characters we do not know.

To complete the litany of semi-pointless characters, Femt, King of Depravity, must also be mentioned.  He is the first villain we are introduced to in the series.  His escapades are clearly sadistic.  His background indicates that he is a criminal mastermind with resources, connections, and an audience hungry for more.  Surely he is to play a major role as the excessively-demented antagonist?  Well, I am sorry to notify you of Femt's untimely demise from the script.  He becomes nothing more than a commentator on William's actions.   The complete mismatch between his initial presentation and ultimate impact was dismal.

I was also disappointed in the lack of world-building detail.  Kekkai Sensen's setting is expansive, with a plethora of questions waiting to be answered.  Often a series can get away with leaving these ends open, allowing the audience to use their imaginations to create their own stories.  But in Kekkai Sensen we aren't even give enough to dream on.  There is no exposition of the magic system, the different guilds that operate within the city, the levels of reality, or the other Kings that rule them.  The final sensation is one of frayed ends rather than being elegantly unresolved.

In conclusion, Kekkai Sensen is an enjoyable, if flawed, series.  It was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of its plot or message, but made up for this in spades with its exuberant visuals, quirky humor and detailed character design.  A solid choice for when you just want something fun and entertaining without having to worry too much about the point of it all.