Spoiler warning for Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, Mobile Suit Gundam, Gundam Wing, 08th MS Team, & Space Runaway Ideon
2020 was the year I finally got off the new show hamster wheel. I didn’t try as I usually do to keep up with every new series that came out. I lost the drive to be in the zeitgeist with every new streamable thing instead picking and choosing when and what I wanted to watch. Once quarantine started and the “Tiger King” had officially left the cultural consciousness, I settled more on rewatching old favorites or discovering older shows. Some of this is due to the general climate; I really want to watch “I May Destroy You” but at the time of its release my brain was not in a good place to handle heavy subject matter. I did watch at least a few newer shows. I finally sat and watched “What We Do In The Shadows” which is absolutely the funniest TV comedy on right now. “The Last Dance” entered my life for ten blissful weeks of Michael Jordan and 90’s nostalgia even if it had largely stopped being interesting by the end (we’ll still have the Jordan memes). And while “The Queen’s Gambit” has officially entered the oversaturation zone I had a phenomenal time with. Mainly I sidestepped bingeing new series because I officially broke the valve on my anime watching. I had been slowly dipping my toe back into anime over the past few years after ostensibly swearing off it in high school. I’ve found that I can wrap my head around the good and bad of the genre better than when I was younger and liking anime was much closer to something of a personal identity. I’m still not right with a lot of the gross horniness that comes along with the genre but I’m much better at identifying that line within a given series. There are series where women are sexual and there are others where they are sexualized and my brain is much better for learning that distinction.
Instead of this list being the best new shows of 2020, I’m writing about a few different series and universes that I had a great time engaging with. All except one predates 2020 and the majority by multiple decades:
Star Wars: The Clone Wars & Mandalorian
Star Wars is one of those special series that each time a new thing comes out the online discourse becomes absolutely insufferable. There is no better example of a series that should probably be removed from existence than Star Wars. Since “The Last Jedi” the online fan reaction has shown just how awful and abusive fan reactions can be and is the entire alt right movement in microcosm. The Star Wars fandom has a direct line from Gamergate harassment and the Trump presidency at large. The absolute worst thing you can do is bring up Luke Skywalker on Twitter. This is all coming from someone who is a lifelong fan of Star Wars. One of my parents favorite anecdotes is how I pestered family friends for plot information about the original trilogy movies before I was allowed to watch them (this was in the mid 90’s). I grew up with the prequels and loved them as a kid so I have been bought in on the series since I was 3. Still, Star Wars fandom is so incredibly toxic that it would probably be a W for everyone if it ceased to exist. Which makes my Star Wars watching a much more personal experience and not try and lose it over every “The Last Jedi is bad” take. I’ve been able to enjoy the TV shows as I pick my way through them even if I’m largely wary about where Star Wars as a brand is heading.
The Mandalorian premiering last year was certainly big for me. Here was an expensive live action Star Wars tv show that wasn’t about Jedi or Skywalkers. I was definitely excited but even more surprised when the show launched. To paraphrase Gita Jackson at Vice Games, the show is largely “about going to different planets and a new western is taking place.” I was taken aback that this wasn’t a show made in the style of “prestige TV” but rather cable adventure shows from before the advent of streaming. The first season especially eschews every episode pertaining to one long form narrative and instead has majority one off adventures. Mandalorian is a great in a B-tier action sense, which is 100% a compliment. I don’t need a large scale space adventure, give me the lone wolf and cub as they stumble upon different societies in space. It’s messy but in a charming way. Once the Darksaber was introduced at the end of season 1, I knew I finally had to jump into Clone Wars.
Clone Wars is similarly structured, albeit slightly more kid friendly and with much larger seasons and arcs. The series covers the interstitial war that occurred between episodes 2 & 3 and retroactively makes the prequels better. Emily and I just started a rewatch of the series starting with the prequels (I don’t care if you don’t think this is the correct watch order) and I was ready to embrace these movies after finishing two seasons of Clone Wars. They’re not as bad as I remember but boy are they boring. Clone Wars gets to benefit from the exciting parts of those series, namely the world building, and expand upon it with interesting stories. We get a look into what it means to be a clone trooper, smaller planets caught up in the wider Republic politics, and clever foreshadowing of movie plot points. The show gets to include all the cool Jedi found in the background of the Prequels and added the unstoppable cultural juggernaut that is Asoka Tano (very fun character). Even the characters from the movies, especially Anakin, benefit from longer form storytelling. Stories like the ones that center around Obi Wan’s romantic feelings for a politician he protected when he was younger make the Jedi orders rejection of Anakin’s love affair even more hypocritical. Also just having Anakin be a reckless general and actually having fun makes for a much more engaging character than the mopey edge lord we get in the movies. Since I’m at the risk of overselling the show, the 22 episode seasons do mean there’s plenty of lag. Some stories are very slapstick, goofy, or plain unengaging like a three episode King Kong riff. I’ve heard the best is still yet to come, so I’m excited to move further into season 3.
Clone Wars also benefits by having the main focus be on characters from the movies. This allows the show to avoid weird character guest appearances which was a major problem I had with Mandalorian season 2. Before I get to that, I do want to say that I think this season was a total improvement over season 1. The directing was better across the board so the action scenes were a lot less hokey. The individual stories were all interesting starting with a real winner of space cowboy in Boba Fett, a misdirect that unfortunately doesn’t stick long term. They even included an extended look at the ongoings of the fallen imperial army with a tremendous episode featuring a space Bostonian. They made smart ties to the Clone Wars tv show too with Bo-Katan and her crew from the homeplanet of Mandalore. My favorite episode of the season “The Jedi” evoked classic samurai films to great effect (but unfortunately casting noted transphobe Rosario Dawson).
Where the season gets messy though are those aforementioned cameos. We were teased Boba Fett at the end of season 1 and we get him returning here as a badass warrior, which is hilarious given that his biggest moment in the original trilogy has him immediately ending up in a sarlacc pit. I did enjoy his introduction episode, a fun action set piece directed by someone who knows a thing or two about B-movie action scenes Robert Rodriquez. The show couldn’t escape the feeling of nerd wish fulfillment. Here is the Boba Fett fans have been fantasizing about since his first appearance in Empire Strikes Back. This cool guy in Spartan armor must be an all time badass right? He even looks like the star of this show so bring him in! It unfortunately connects the show all the way back to the movies which it had been so clever to avoid. The movies all suffer from this inertia that everything revolves around this small set of characters. People have made many jokes through the years of just how small the universe is since things always involved the same dozen characters. Mandalorian proves it’s exactly that small with Boba and then the eventual appearance of Luke.
This is where the nostalgia gets real messy and opened up the floodgates (literally). People were so hyped that they got to see badass hero Luke swoop in again that it reignited the whole Last Jedi harassment again. Disney has catered so much towards fans and it makes the fandom even more irritating. They want their Star Wars myths preserved, Luke in this case being a total hero rather than morally compromised in Last Jedi, and Disney seems to be cementing that. Really this exacerbates the aforementioned small galaxy problem and makes the storytelling so much less interesting. When your plot is building toward a character showing up, it makes it hard to care about the characters you’re spending time with. It cheapens the whole experience and that’s before you realize half of this season was a backdoor pilot. Disney has instead backed away from the onslaught of Star Wars movies to jam 10 (!!) new tv shows onto their platform (not including other movies in development). It makes you wonder how much narrative they have that can be unique and also cater to the very loud group of fans. Much like the Mandalorian, I will probably enjoy some of it. On the other hand, I’m already tired of it all.
Mobile Suit Gundam Series
Here’s where the anime reintroduction officially began. I started to listen to Abnormal Mapping at the beginning of the year (specifically their Outer Wilds episode, amazing game and episode) and slowly started to listen to their wider podcast network. For $1 on their Patreon you get the Great Gundam Project where they watch every Gundam series in release order. They happened to also start covering Gundam Wing this year, one of my favorite Toonami era anime. They also pair all of the Gundam shows with a backup anime to watch along with, which led me to Space Runaway Ideon (more on that later). Needless to say I was very excited to jump back into Wing.
And boy what an uneven show that is. It’s a show that starts pedal to the medal with our 5 teen protagonists touching down on earth to battle OZ. What starts as a straightforward fight against two sides rapidly shifts to changing sides and organizations in power. Also the warring factions fight in giant armored mechs and the protagonists pilot special ones called Gundams. The show really wants to focus on the nature of war, the personal ideologies of soldiers and the machinations of the powerful. Our protagonists quickly find themselves stranded without a purpose as the show burns through an entire series worth of plot in 20 episodes. With so much thematic material covered, the back half of the series is left without a purpose. Wing instead shifts to a message that “war is bad actually” and misguided notions of why war is fought. It all ends with the two sides essentially play fighting and really cool looking fight sequences that are essentially meaningless.
I remembered at least some of this ideology on rewatch. I remembered it’s intense dedication talking about total pacifism and I thought that this idea extended throughout Gundam. This is a fairly common western conception of the series; Gundam Wing and 08th MS team are by far the two most watched series among US fans because of their Toonami airings (Wing was the first to come over from Japan). 08th runs along a similar ideological wavelength by focusing on the ground troops set during the original Gundam’s timeline. It’s a more on the ground “war is hell” sort of Vietnam story tied up with a star crossed lovers story (people love it, but this part did not land with me). It’s strangely meandering and boring for a series that’s beloved by the fandom. In the end it’s trying to tell a story about finding your place in the world outside of national ideology, which never really landed for me.
These two shows got me interested in watching more so I started watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam from 1979 when it was added to Funimation. The original has a lot on its mind; it’s about the cost of war but also why people fight. It’s about the terrible weapons being deployed for destruction and the Gundam is supposed to be terrifying. Mobile Suit Gundam is also about the mechanics of imperialism (Gundam is a portmanteau of gun and freedom and the Rx78 mobile suit is in the colors of the American flag) and the places caught up in the battle between Zeon and the Earth Federation. This is all wrapped in what ostensibly resembles a Saturday morning cartoon with an overarching storyline paired with climatic mecha battles. It also balances plenty of humor to go with the darker parts of the plot. It’s a tremendous show that stands apart from its later counterparts by having a more nuanced ideology. It complicates the hero’s journey by questioning their reasons for fighting and what forces are influencing them.
Space Runaway Ideon
This is a really special show. Space Runaway Ideon aired from 1980-81 and was the series immediately following Mobile Suit Gundam’s cancellation by Yoshiyuki Tomino (Ideon was also canceled). The show still revolves around mecha, this time three truck looking vehicles that form one giant mech. These vehicles are discovered by earthling colonists on a new planet called Logo Dau and believed to belong to what they refer to as the “sixth civilization” (the sixth alien society they’ve cataloged). Before they can understand this new power, they’re attacked by the “Buff Clan” (aliens from the planet Buff) who look suspiciously exactly like humans. The earthlings fight back the Buff Clan and find themselves on the run with this new technology which the Buff believe to be a source of infinite power known as the “Ide.”
Much like the original Gundam this show at first also resembles a Saturday morning cartoon. I struggled with it a bit in the opening episodes as I wasn’t accustomed to this type of anime (less bombastic and melodramatic than the typical 90s fare I saw on Toonami). Why did the two sides have to fight every episode, couldn’t they simply talk it out? That exact question underpins the entire show and Ideon reveals that it’s about how power and nationalism naturally breeds distrust. The struggle for the protagonists is how to handle this immense power and who to trust when you’re literally carting around an atomic level weapon. They don’t trust the conquering Buff Clan who only want to use it to further expand across space and even the Earth military wants to take it for their own destructive ends. It’s less about the alluring nature of power (ala LOTR) and more about how power only brings destruction. The destructive power of the Ideon only grows stronger the more times they engage in battle. In a regular Shonen anime growing power is tied with self actualization and control over yourself. In Ideon, growing power breeds more fear and anxiety and a loss of control. The protagonists quickly realize they have no idea how to bottle it’s increasing destruction as they are continually forced to use it to protect themselves. It can be a pretty bleak show.
I’ve already written about my favorite character, the no holds barred teen Kasha, but the show is filled with other interesting ones. Cosmo is the opposite of the anime boy stereotype, a brash and rude teen who thinks he knows the best in every situation. Sheryl plays the role of devil’s advocate most of the time, but her hard rationalizations can prove correct making her needling an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the crew (her final breaking point at the end of the series is fantastic as well). We get the Buff Clan perspective from Karala, a Buff royal who turns to the earthling side after Buff Clan fighting. Her outside perspective makes the rest of the crew naturally distrustful of her and it’s through those interactions that we get a better look into how the two cultures lock people into specific actions and roles that are often opposed to outsiders. Bes, the ship’s captain, starts out as a loud condescending figure before learning to listen and trust his fellow crew members. We also get this amazing scene from him in literally the first episode.
Ideon barrels to an amazing conclusion that shows how national identity locks people into conflict. The Buff Clan and our earth protagonists find they have no choice but to fight, less the Buff Clan soldiers lose rank and status. The show ends well enough, but the follow up movie “Be Invoked” expands upon it thematically. Ideon knows that these characters have no other path but destruction and the movie can be rough watching the violence overtake the ship. The movie ends on a positive note though, a spiritual counterpoint that shows how live beings are connected outside social and national paradigms. Released from the conflict, they are able to be at peace and join with one another before their spirits fly to a new planet to ostensibly try again.
Ideon was never a huge hit here, but made a big impact among anime fans of its generation. The most notable influence can be seen in Hideaki Anno’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” There’s a direct through line between the two series and you can see where Anno even lifted parts from it. This is especially true for the follow up movie “End of Evangelion” which practically recreates shots from Be Invoked, albeit with a much darker and less affecting ending. I haven’t seen anything like Ideon and I don’t think I ever will. It’s an effecting story interrogating the reasons and structures that keep people locked in conflict and the metaphysical forces that tie us all together.