A new anthology show crops up nearly every month. True Detective, The Act, The Twilight Zone — the list goes on. There’s logic to the deluge; in the chaotic ever-churning of a streaming service interface, anthology shows slake our subliminal thirst for original stories without asking us to abandon the trusted brand names. Sometimes the brand is the anthology itself, like the technophobic paranoia of Black Mirror, and sometimes it’s the storyteller attached to the project, like whatever show you hit when you throw a dart at Ryan Murphy’s Wikipedia page.
But none have quite blown up the whole system in favor of maximalist experimentation like Space Dandy, a 26-episode anime that holds some salient lessons for the anthology format.
On the surface, Space Dandy, a staple of Adult Swim’s Toonami block five years ago, doesn’t match the usual conception of an anthology. The major difference is Dandy, a pompadoured doofus and the protagonist (it’s unclear whether his first name is, in fact, “Space”). Emboldened by garish overconfidence and a constant shortage of cash, Dandy hunts for undiscovered extraterrestrials with the help of a cat-like alien, a sentient robot vacuum, and a spaceship that builds the dashboard hula doll into a whole tacky aesthetic.
These fixtures are vehicles for sci-fi misadventures that hugely differ from one episode to the next, all at the whims of a vast, varied production crew gifted with staggering amounts of creative freedom. Each idea and concept differs so radically from the last that Space Dandy becomes a kind of anthology all its own.
Like Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone or the Ryan Murphy shows, Space Dandy launched on the cultural cachet of a well-known storyteller: Shinichiro Watanabe, master of the episodic format through shows like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. The down-on-their-luck crew scrounging for cash to the tunes of an eclectic soundtrack is well-trod territory for Watanabe, but the anime’s success comes from the relative absence of his laid-back directorial voice — or of any unifying voice whatsoever. As “chief director,” Watanabe even splits his duties with Shingo Natsume, who’d go on to run the first season of One-Punch Man with some noticeable Space Dandy staff overlap.
The show breaks its concept wide open in the very first episode, which concludes with the death of Dandy and his crew — as well as the death of their constant pursuer, a dapper gorilla doctor who pilots the ball-gagged head of the Statue of Liberty. Everyone reappears in the second episode as if nothing happened, and by the fourth, the series is exploring the outrageous extremes of zombie fiction, ending up as a sort of nature documentary that also details what happens when the undead collect their life insurance. Some episodes end with the characters abandoning their alien-hunting goal, if not forgetting it altogether; others pretty much abandon it from the start.
If you watch Space Dandy in order (which I can’t totally recommend since early episodes are both the rockiest and most fixated on Dandy’s lecherous tendencies; the eighth episode is an ideal jumping-on point), the series unravels into experimental art. Many episodes eschew the group dynamic entirely in favor of stranding Dandy as our POV character in some surreal locale; one standout episode is less a comedy than a somber meditation on the nature of death and what it means to continue living in the face of its total certainty. Another is an interstellar high school musical.
To some degree, these wild swings are sewn into the very fabric of the anthology show. The original Twilight Zone had comedic stories and grim parables, while Black Mirror’s first series pivoted from beastiality to a gamified dystopian talent show. None, however, take things quite so far as Space Dandy, right down to the way each episode looks. Beyond differences in character design, where Dandy might take on slightly more cartoonish proportions one week, the aesthetics vary as widely as the hundreds of bizarre alien designs standing in the background. The series tackles grief, romance, rock bands, robot uprisings, and truly dense sci-fi with equal commitment; rendering it all in kaleidoscopic colors and psychedelic flourishes — except when it chooses to go minimalist or completely grayscale.
Dandy’s thrills are in the unknown. What will they come up with next? What will it look like, given the conflicting styles of the show’s collaborators? The ninth episode “Plants Are Living Things, Too, Baby” (they all end in “baby”) drops Dandy, who’s drawn a little ganglier and sans jacket, onto a planet inhabited by giant plant lifeforms spread across a painterly landscape. The melancholic 21st episode “A World with No Sadness, Baby” depicts a ruined city painted over with the rays of a perpetually setting sun. Amorphous creatures wander listlessly as they muse to themselves. An angelic being plays an acoustic guitar while perched atop ramshackle wiring. When Dandy is spotted by some flying monsters, the mournful strumming gives way to upbeat chase music.
Space Dandy doesn’t beam from one brand-name creator, like Jordan Peele or Charlie Brooker. The series’ brand is, essentially, the entirely anarchic lack of one, which ends up centering the work of its individual contributors. The inmates are running the asylum, and they’re making anime. You learn what is singularly the work of Eunyoung Choi, of Yasuhiro Nakura, of Kiyotaka Oshiyama, who handled the gorgeous, meditative fishing episode “The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby” pretty much solo. Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop partners all contribute, as does frequent collaborator Sayo Yamamoto (Yuri on Ice), but others make their debuts in his creative orbit as newcomers getting their big breaks or old pros showing up for brief contributions. Kimiko Ueno pens a significant chunk of the series, and indeed, over half the episodes are either written or directed by women.
The result is an inversion of the TV anthology’s cultivated anonymity, which tends to center recognizable guest stars above all else, the people we actually see onscreen. But with Space Dandy, you can’t help but see the idiosyncrasies of these collaborators instead, the striking moments of individuality as amplified by the show’s intentionally loose framework. Which isn’t to say the anthology show needs to abandon its format entirely—part of what makes Space Dandy so wonderful and so distinctive is that it’s animated, after all, and so open to more experimentation than a live-action series. But five years on, it’s a stunning reminder of what’s possible when shows shake off their expected norms and embrace a diversity of talent allowed to run wild, fostering an audience appreciation of form and style that’s just as rewarding as seeing which actor will pop up next.
Subbed episodes of Space Dandy are currently streaming on Hulu