This article is a guest post from Warui Deshou host/producer Shadon. You can find his full length fiction on Amazon and keep up with his exploits in the fighting game community by following him on Twitter.
There’s a phenomenon known as “social television” that’s not so much new as it is increasingly prevalent in the internet age. At face value this seems like an amusing contradiction, but that’s not actually the case. Social television is the idea that social media allows for a much wider reaching discussion and critique of fictional works (in this case shows, but in theory this applies to pretty much any medium of fiction) between individuals who are not professional critics. Such discussion can range from off-the-cuff remarks about the latest episode of a show on Twitter to, say, a full blown blog article or even a Let’s Play in the case of video games.
Why is this relevant to anime? Well, I recently watched a series that aired in the Winter 2016 season of anime called ACCA-13 which, to be charitable, is completely middle of the road. It is an unremarkable, toothless, bloodless, tension-less work that lacks in stakes, character and drive. To analogize, the show is presented in the same manner as a Formula 1 car that has no wheels attached: pretty to look at, but non-functional.
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. If you follow the comparison, the car in question would run just fine if it had wheels. The rest of it works and is quite pleasing to the eye; it just lacks the crucial component to get going. But because of that crippling omission, it never starts and never has a chance of success.
I could go into more depth on ACCA-13 and why it fails as a piece of entertainment for me personally, but the issue here is that whatever criticism I could level at it would refer to crimes of omission. Beyond one scene involving assassins so incompetent they couldn’t kill a spider with a live hand grenade, there is nothing to hate about the show in terms of the content it actually presents. There’s nothing offensive, no unwarranted fanservice, no questionable things happening to children, no out of place ultraviolence. It is as plain and stale as a loaf of bread left out in the sun for a tad too long.
To compare, let’s look at Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, a show which has been examined in great, sequential detail by the staff here at Wave Motion Cannon. I rather like the show for it’s hilarious unique comedic skits and for the heart it shows regarding relationships and family; however, I will also be quick to point out its rather glaring missteps (looking at you Lucoa). Dragon Maid is remarkably uneven, going from humorous single moments such as Tohru trapping Elma in the portal dimension in a quick take, to dead-horse gags such as Saikawa or the skin crawling stuff with Shouta and Lucoa that make me wonder how the same writer could pen both in the same story. I’m assuming he had an off day, or perhaps ten.
I compare these two shows, though, because of the two, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is the one that is going to stick with me longest. It evokes as much scorn from me as it does praise, but there is a reaction on both ends of the spectrum. The show both gets a good laugh and plucks the old heartstrings (which I had erroneously believed I removed some time ago… rest assured this mistake will be corrected). At the same time, this same show induces tooth grinding nausea at Lucoa and some other egregiously crappy parts. But, I had an emotional or at the very least impassioned response to it throughout, for ill or for good. ACCA-13, by contrast, is mostly a flatline in which I felt like I was in a coma while watching.
All things considered, Dragon Maid is better than ACCA. The former is a case of positives outweighing negatives versus the straight down the middle of the latter. But what about a roundly terrible show? Well, I have been known to talk on a certain podcast about shows that turned out to be utterly wretched and that I totally had no hand in picking to be watched. One of these was Elfen Lied, and the amount of positive things I took away from that anime I could count on one hand. I raged against that show; about its emotional manipulation of the audience in lieu of genuine sympathy building, its infuriatingly brain dead characters, the incestual themes that are presented as totally acceptable and the multitude of plot threads that go absolutely nowhere. But it provoked a strong reaction in me, a reaction I won’t forget. ACCA, I will forget in time.
What’s the point of these comparisons? Well, when social television first became a concept with the rise of Mystery Science Theater 3000, that was also the beginning of a change of general critical opinion shifting from a linear scale of bad-to-good to something more of a sine wave. Here the value of a work is no longer strictly defined in a linearly rising fashion (like the classic scale of 1 – 10 as a rating of quality, 1 being awful, 10 being incredible), but rather the notion of value divorced from critical quality starts off high at the atrocious end of the scale (Elfen Lied), hits a nadir at around the mid point (ACCA-13) and then climbs back very quickly as critical quality (be it personal or derived from consensus) becomes more apparent even with the presence of flaws (Dragon Maid). The low is a valley between two peaks. In fact, the most apt description of this new scale is that of the uncanny valley, where getting close to being “good” ironically damns you to being far worse than being “bad”.
You see, there is value‒of both the academic and entertainment varieties‒to be derived from works that consensus would suggest are bad. These value types aren’t even mutually exclusive; you can be funny while also being informative, and people can derive pleasure from reading an otherwise comedy-free critique. But be it a good or a bad work, be it entertaining and/or academic, works that provoke strong responses have value in a more connected world such as ours. With a potential audience of thousands, and in turn a near infinitesimal amount of critical content made by both professionals and amateurs, you can be catered to at both ends of the quality spectrum. And there is genuine social, entertainment and intellectual value to being able to meet and discuss both good and bad works with people you would not be able to in person.
In short, the internet and social television have given more value to the opinion you have (and that of others) on a work and also created less of a vacuum for these opinions to exist in. In the case of the value proposition, it enriches conversation and creates the opportunity for forming friendships with both people you meet in person and strictly online. A bad show can bring friends together and offer a compelling social experience, even if at the show’s expense, and it can provide a platform for the observant to be educated on how that work fell short (as a wannabe author no small part of what I’ve learned about writing has come from reading or listening to critiques of both good and bad works across a variety of mediums). As for the lessening of the vacuum, the internet and social media have made finding like-minded individuals relatively easy. It would not be a stretch to think you came to this very website through something you saw on Twitter, and even if you went straight to this article, it would be difficult to miss the list of other topics and discussions on Wave Motion Cannon. You might not read a critique on a particular show, but you’ll notice even just the presence or absence of discussion about certain works (it’s no coincidence that I used Dragon Maid as a comparison point to ACCA-13 given the former has had multiple WMC articles devoted to it as well as critiques by WMC staff given outside of the site, whereas to my knowledge ACCA-13 has received none). Simply put, once you free the social media genie from the bottle and wish to become even a tiny bit involved in a fandom or wider discussion about even the broadest of things, the genie isn’t going back in I’m afraid, and even if you don’t engage in content and critique, you’ll become more aware of its very existence.
And that, in my mind, has changed the critical spectrum into that valley I mentioned before. It was ACCA-13 that made this realization crystal for me.
Is this a good thing, though? Setting aside the facts that more people can be critics and that critical analysis in and of itself is subject to the same gulf in quality as the works it examines (like some sort of social media Ouroburos), I’m not sure. Were I asked to recommend either Elfen Lied or ACCA-13 to someone, part of me, the more clinical part, would say ACCA because it is the better show. But another part would say Elfen Lied because it is the more memorable of the two, for better or worse, and I did quite enjoy ripping it to shreds on the podcast.
I’m fairly sure this makes me some sort of irredeemable monster, but it is the truth.
The other sad truth: if what I’ve written holds, then it damns the work of competent but unambitious individuals to indifference. ACCA-13 is not a badly made show by any measure, it’s just a piece of media without meat for me to chew on. The potential for something great exists within its bones, and I would posit that if it were paced narratively in a manner like 91 Days (Editor’s Note: Fuck yeah, 91 Days!) and trimmed its “tell, don’t show” moments, a damn fine political thriller could have been had. As it stands it’s a good looking show with a decently constructed world. Yet, despite the illusion of activity, ACCA is a playset in which the toys are never touched and never move, forgotten as it is, which is an absolute shame.
Thankfully, this idea of “provocative value” does not devalue good works, and in my opinion social television has made my life richer. It’s been fascinating, even overwhelming, to sample so much opinion that in the pre-internet era I would have never known about. I’ve learned things about films, games and shows that I never would have otherwise realized on my own, and hopefully in turn I’ve given something of value in my own critique to someone out there.
Perhaps the uncanny valley of critical value varies between individuals. Perhaps to some it is just a linear trend upwards. But to me, it’s bizarre and almost Orwellian doublethink that those works, those shows that end up stuck in the middle, end up the worst in my mind.