A couple episodes into the second season of Welcome to the NHK, and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s one of those quirky, underhandedly intelligent series that mix goofy situation comedy with realistic characters to make something that gets you engaged with the characters while you’re laughing at them.
It’s fundamentally a series about people with severe psychological problems. Not “this character is crazy,” we’re talking “this character has major psychological issues and needs counseling at minimum, if not some psychotropic drugs.” At least one of them, in fact, has a wide array of medications that she most definitely needs, and the protagonist could probably use some psychiatric help himself.
What’s most interesting about the series is how it gets you laughing at things that really shouldn’t be funny. The season climax, for example, has the main character unwittingly joining a suicide club on their final journey in an attempt to get his life back in order. This shouldn’t be funny—it’s serious stuff, and everyoe but the loony odd-man-out is played straight. Yet his cheerful comments to the morose crew have that tragicomic flavor that have you laughing despite the obvious drama. In a way it’s tapping into the tragic absurdity of people’s all-too-real problems.
What’s also interesting about something that treads such a fine line between humor and psychodrama is that it’s sometimes hard to tell when, exactly, you’re supposed to stop laughing. It’s not that you don’t care about the characters—several are rather affecting, in fact—it’s just that the tragic absurdity of it has you laughing (and I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be) well past the point when most similar stories would have gone into full-on drama. The suicide club eventually gets some full-on drama, but it starts well past the point when by all rights it should have, and in fact what should be the dramatic climax is actually one of the funniest bits—most unintentionally awful suicide counseling ever. The drama is far lower-key, and more of a follow-up.
It reminds me a little of how Trainspotting played its black-comedy game; the Worst Toilet in Scotland scene early on was so patently absurd it let you see some humor in the comparative tragedy later. Welcome to the NHK, for its part, opens with the protagonist’s appliances talking to him and a particularly surrealist scene (compared to the completely concrete remainder of the series), introducing you to his humorously-over-the-top, if unhealthy, worldview. (Aside: The captions for the hearing-impaired during that Trainspotting toilet scene are the single funniest bit of subtitling I have ever read—if you have the DVD, go watch for yourself.)
The other thing it excels at is when-you-think-about-it humor. Most of this is fueled, again, by the protagonist, in particular his penchant for spectacular levels of apathy. One of the best conceptual parts is where he discovers porn on the internet. His request for computer help after deleting his operating system in an attempt to make room for more porn is funny (and, speaking as someone who does tech support periodically, entirely realistic). The unspoken implication that he lacked the initiative to find porn on the internet, now that’s just hilarious.
It’s also a nice looking series in a weird way; the character art lacks a lot of detail and the shading is usually very flat, but the character design is memorable and the character animation quite good. It’s often quite stylized in terms of shading or color, but otherwise the backgrounds are detailed and realistic, with a satisfyingly lived-in look (also props to the realistic computer hardware, which plays something of a central role—for once the art geeks made it look like a real geek’s hangout, rather than a parody of one). It’s something of a departure from expected Gonzo fare (or much else, really), but overall appealing.
I’m very much liking the series, and while the second season starts on a relatively morose (though still emotionally engaging) note, I’m wholly optimistic that it’s gong to hold itself together. It even dodges what at first looked like it was going to be a lame excuse for two characters not properly getting together; the initial excuse is followed up by an entirely valid reason.
Also, a theory, though the sample size is small: The protagonist’s appliances talk to him and say unhealthy things when he’s asleep, but when he’s awake and hallucinating that they’re talking to him, they try to be helpful. Maybe.