Glancing Upstream: Summer 2015 Retrospective and Review

Having some good old-fashioned fun in the sun.

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Summer might not have had the most groundbreaking or ambitious of series, but what it lacked in artistry it made up for in pure enjoyment. This season was just plain entertaining, chock full a variety of genres from high fantasy to crime drama to horror to comedy. Well-executed (or awesomely bad) pop fiction was the name of the game, and I was genuinely excited for the next episode of even the lowest-rated series on this list.

That isn’t to say there weren’t some excellent ideas and characters to be found among the batch, mind you. While “entertainment” was the primary focus, many of the top series featured strong character writing, showrunners who knew how to develop unique atmospheres through art and music, and an understated but insightful exploration of social issues such as power imbalances and bigotry.

School-Live and Gangsta dealt with trauma in nuanced ways, and Snow White and My Love Story depicted some of the healthiest relationships in shoujo memory, promoting communication and quietly but consistently challenging traditional gender roles and genre stereotypes. Part of the reason I had so much fun this season was because I wasn’t having to constantly roll my eyes at some trite or harmful characterization, but could just get swept along in a bunch of great (or hilaribad) stories. And that makes this a pretty strong season in my book.

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GANGSTA. – Episode 12: “Odds and Ends” (Finale & Review)

Well, that’s one way to boost manga sales.

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After a bumpy third act hamstrung by ongoing production issues, Gangsta comes roaring back with a stellar final episode that reminds me of all the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place. Taking time to expand upon the supporting cast while never losing its central focus on our main trio, “Odds and Ends” is one-part character study and one-part tense, action-packed shootout, drenched in melancholy and badassery in equal turns and looking damn sexy to boot. It’d be one hell of a great way to end the series… if this were anything even remotely resembling an ending, that is.

As has become customary, I’ll spend the first part of this post providing a mostly spoiler-free series review and the second discussing the episode itself. Hit the jump and I’ll let any newbies know when to close the window.

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GANGSTA. – Episode 11: “Absence”

That’s about as apt as an episode title can get.

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A whole lot of characters see screen time this week, but this one’s defined more by who isn’t present than who is. Alex spends most of her time in a fugue state off camera, her brother Emilio is heard but not seen, Erica’s the topic of much discussion but never shows her face, and of course the Handymen themselves are absent altogether, and barely even mentioned by the other players.

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GANGSTA. – Episode 10: “Land of Confusion”

I’d say it was the calm before the storm, but I sure don’t feel relaxed.

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We’re back to political world-building and character study this week, a decision that’s worked in the show’s favor in the past and mostly does now. I suspect GANGSTA‘s pendulum swings from thoughtful drama to bloody action is going to continue to be a bit of a sore point for me, as the wider world of Ergastulum fills with increasingly archetypal and over-the-top characters (hello, Eyepatch Girl) who feel absurdly out of place in a series that seemed interested in maintaining a kind of gritty pseudo-realism for its first seven episodes. But that’s where we are, so I’ll try to get used to it.

And even if I can’t, our central trio remains a wonderfully sympathetic and complex ball of uncertain desires and contradictions. Their personalities and relationships with each other ground GANGSTA in a kind of emotional reality even when people are jumping off rooftops and cleaving their opponents in two, so here’s hoping the series can maintain its focus on Alex, Nic, and Worick in the coming war and make me care about the outcome as much as they do.

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GANGSTA. – Episode 9: “Siblings”

“Sibling rivalry” is about to take on a whole new meaning.

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The season’s building tensions and anti-Twilight violence come to a proper head, as leaders leave the shadows, lines are drawn in the sand, and our protagonists come face-to-face with their next big challenge. While last week’s battle was a covert one, taking place in the alleyways of Ergastulum and thus relegated to a few quick scenes within the show itself, this week brings everything out into the open, and front and center on our screens.

In other words, TWIFIIIIIGHT!

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GANGSTA. – Episode 8: “Evening Dress”

Well, even the best teams have off nights, I suppose…

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As I mentioned before, I’m reading the corresponding GANGSTA manga chapter after watching the anime episodes to help solidify all the names, factions, and plot nuggets, and while the two are identical (so far) in terms of basic story, there are small cuts and line changes that dramatically affect the overall tone. The manga’s more graphic with its violence, more direct in its world-building, less tasteful in the way characters (especially Worick) treat women and marginalized groups, and sillier in its content, utilizing comically deformed faces and asides.

In other words, the manga looks a lot more like the anime episode we got this week.

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GANGSTA. – Episode 7: “Birth”

It’s not just the lighting that’s dark and murky around here.

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I hope you watched this one with your blinds drawn, ’cause otherwise you may not have had the faintest clue what was going on half the time. Don’t get me wrong: GANGSTA has some very good reasons both thematically and practically to place its characters in lots of lightless rooms covered in long shadows with only the occasional faint ray of moonlight passing through barred windows, but man, was my tablet unhappy about it. In addition to those “work of fiction” and “subtitles” notes at the start of each episode, they really oughta add a “best viewed in a closet” notification, too.

Okay, lighthearted snarking over. Let’s get to the serious stuff.

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