That sacred time has come yet again. Once again we’ve arrived at the halfway point of the season, and once again I’ll be foregoing my episodic-specific thoughts in lieu of general feelings on everything I’m watching so far, all sorted into a neat show ranking. As usual, I should impress upon everyone that these show rankings don’t aspire to anything approaching objectivity, and the fact that I’m only doing this ranking here, when many shows have only just finished clearing their throats, means it’s basically impossible to draw any conclusions from them. These rankings also used to feel a bit more meaningful when I actually watched seven or eight shows a season – these days I tend to max out at half a dozen, and generally drop anything I’m not thoroughly enjoying. All five of these shows have been tested and found worthy in their own various genres and specialties, and I’d happily recommend any of them to the right person. But there can be only one champion, so let’s start with my top pick and RUN THIS SEASON DOWN!
#1: After the Rain
Look, if any given anime season has a smartly constructed and deeply personal show about someone being quietly unhappy, I am probably there. From Hyouka to Oregairu to Just Because!, the tenuous and often painful substance of our internal worlds is always fascinating to me, and I consider illustrating such personal truths to be one of fiction’s highest callings. After the Rain slots neatly into this tradition in spite of its exploitation-ripe premise, compassionately and beautifully illustrating the sad worlds of Kondo and Akira. So far, the show’s potential romance has mostly served as a vehicle for both of its leads to hang the dissatisfaction they feel with their own lives on some tangible “other,” allowing them escape from the certainty of “my happiness is over, my path is closed” to the alluring ambiguity of “perhaps this person carries a happier path with them.” The show illustrates their uncertainty, unhappiness, and small victories almost without words, allowing its gorgeous layouts and often terrific character acting to bring its leads’ feelings to life. After the Rain is a nearly perfect articulation of a universal feeling of discontentment, its grey clouds and distant skies articulating a sense of alienation familiar to anyone who mourns the lives they could have lived.
#2: Darling in the Franxx
Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. After the first couple episodes’ egregious Evangelion-cribbing, butt handles, and general ham-handedness when it came to both themes and character writing, I really wasn’t expected much from Franxx. But three of the last four episodes have been genuinely great, to the point where I now care about pretty much this entire cast, trust the show has some understanding of the thematic balls it’s juggling, and am interested in seeing where the overt narrative goes. These recent episodes’ mix of intimate little character moments and relationship evolution have given me every reason to believe in the bonds between these kids, as well as Zero Two’s sense of bitter isolation. On top of that, the show has remained friggin’ gorgeous from moment one, with top-tier director after top-tier director stopping by to lend their evocative layouts and other signature strengths. Darling in the Franxx started out as beautiful but seemingly empty, but it has diligently filled itself in with resonant substance ever since. Franxx may now be the show I most anticipate each week.
#3: March comes in like a lion
It feels somewhat awkward to put March on this list at all, both because we’re so far into its seasons now, and also because it’s spent a fair portion of this season taking a vacation. But based on what little March we have seen, it seems the season is continuing with its general excellence, and that the end of the Hina and Souya arcs have left the show open to all sorts of new directions. March’s second season has been an improvement on the whole over the first, and the show’s technical merits also get to benefit from our steadily increasing emotional involvement in all the diverse players of Rei’s world. March has tightened up its comedy, honed in on its most compelling characters, and leveled up its visual execution. The show is as sturdy a character drama as they come.
#4: Laid Back Camp
My interest in slice of life shows is generally limited to the cream of one particular sub-crop. I don’t really have much interest in your average “girls making pleasant jokes in a clubroom/teahouse/office/etc” show, and tend to only get all that much out of slice of lifes that heavily prioritize an inviting, all-encompassing atmosphere. This tends to necessitate a certain degree of execution regarding layouts and overall tonal concerns, and as far as all that goes, Laid Back Camp absolutely shines. I’ve never really been a fan of camping, but Laid Back Camp so effectively and completely illustrates the bracing beauty of a night in the woods that I can’t help but feel like I’m enjoying its trips myself. From its beautiful backgrounds and uniquely appropriate soundtrack to its likable cast and punchy comedy, Laid Back Camp consistently succeeds in all its tonal goals while also offering small new surprises every episode.
#5: A Place Further Than the Universe
Once again, I should clarify that placing at the bottom of this list isn’t really a bad thing – I’m only sticking with shows I really enjoy, and “least enjoyable of the shows I’m most enjoying” isn’t the most damning criticism. But yes, Universe definitely falls at the bottom of my viewing pile. The show’s best moments are actually among the best moments of the season altogether, but the show just isn’t quite consistent enough – some episodes meander, some jokes are half-baked, some emotional turns aren’t quite effectively seeded. There’s a sharp-edged poignancy to this show that I really appreciate – its longing for a greater life is tinged with desperation, the understanding that this is the only chance we get. That plus its sonorous emotional peaks keep me happy to watch, even if it’s also often just an above-average slice of life.