Saturday, September 13, 2014

Episode of the Week: Space Dandy - "Lovers Are Trendy, Baby"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 2, Episode 10

One of the greatest joys of Space Dandy this year has been watching Shinichiro Watanabe gather all of his friends in the anime industry and allow such a wide array of writers, directors, and animators to let loose every week.  It's the kind of show where fellow auteur Masaaki Yuasa (The Tatami Galaxy, Ping Pong, Kaiba) can take over creative duties for an episode, the wildly inventive "Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby," and make something that's distinct but still feel like it's of a piece with the rest of the show.

Given the round robin nature of writing and directing duties the show, it's been fun to compare and contrast the general style and recurring themes of each creator's string of episodes.  Clearly, the shining light of this all-star cast of writers is Kimiko Ueno.  She's written the brilliant zombie romp "Sometimes You Can't Live Without Dying, Baby," the first episode that indicated Space Dandy was willing to go for broke with its storytelling; the time loop nightmare of "There's Always Tomorrow, Baby"; and the absolutely wild alternate dimension riffing in "I Can't Be the Only One, Baby," to name a few.  (The less said about lone stinker "Rock 'n' Roll Dandy," however, the better.)  Judging from her body of work, it's clear that she has the best handle on the show's mercurial tone, deftly blending high-concept ideas, comedy, and earnest emotions.

Her latest and final episode, "Lovers Are Trendy, Baby," keeps things relatively simple, but that doesn't stop it from being a terrific piece of television.  When an ex-lover returns to her life to try and reconcile their relationship, Scarlet enlists the help of Dandy to pretend to be her boyfriend in order to convince this former beau that she's moved on.  Dandy, forever in a cash-strapped state, accepts the job solely because of the easy money.  Scarlet, unbridled in her annoyance with Dandy, specifically seeks him out because she feels secure that she'd never actually fall for a guy like him.  It's pretty clear from that point where things are going to end up.

Watanabe's most popular works, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, excellently weaved a serialized narrative into largely episodic stories.  And while each episode of Dandy has been much more self-contained from week to week -- heck, multiple episodes have featured one or more members of the crew dying in one week and appearing to be just fine in the next -- they've been very smart about their overall placement in the series order.  Just a few weeks ago, we got "Gallant Space Gentlemen, Baby," which introduced the idea of Scarlet as an unlucky-in-love potential spinster.  More recently than that was "A World With No Sadness, Baby," an episode that, underneath all of its surreality, revealed a more soulful, introspective side of Dandy.  Those two episodes aren't directly referenced in this one, but having them fresh in our minds depends the interaction we see between Scarlet and Dandy.

Much of the episode shows the two of them falling for each other, against their initial intentions.  Ueno's script playfully tosses common tropes into the mix -- Dandy realizing that Scarlet is beautiful when she lets her hair down, a montage that shows them doing a series of cute activities together -- making winks at the fact that their pairing is the product of a story formula.  But it also gives them moments where they reach a genuine, honest understanding.  Their previous encounters with each other have only been in a professional capacity, where Scarlet comes off as an uptight pencil pusher to Dandy and he seems like an irritating oaf to her.  Once they actually spend some quality time together, they begin to see each other in an entirely different light, discovering a shared love of dumb action movies.

When Scarlet's stalker ex-boyfriend tracks them down on the planet Trendy, he gets in a mech and begins firing missiles at them.  (This is Space Dandy.  Why not?)  Scarlet has to take drastic measures to prove that she's over him, resulting in a kiss with Dandy that's equal parts artifice and raw passion.  The results are (literally) explosive.  This coupling is funnier and more swooning than most romantic comedies.

Finally, the crazy ex-boyfriend gets arrested, but neither Dandy nor Scarlet have the courage to admit their true feelings for each other once their obstacle is out of the way.  The job ends, they part ways.  Yet they can't shake that feeling they had together and they're both disconsolate once they're separated.  For better or worse, Scarlet and Dandy have found in each other interlocking pieces to ends of themselves that they didn't even know needed a counterpart.

But there's still one more chance.  Both of them remember a plan they made when they were still operating under the guise of being a couple to meet at a bar and go watch an action movie afterward.  In true romantic comedy fashion, there's a thrilling crosscutting between Dandy rushing to meet Scarlet after remembering their planned rendezvous at the last minute and Scarlet at the bar, forlornly wondering whether Dandy will show up.  However, as he's told by the bartender, he arrives just a second too late.  When he rushes back out into the street to call her name, a train blocks her view as she turns to look around.  Just as the stars were aligned for them to fall for each other, they were also fated to never act on those feelings.

That shot of the two of them walking in opposite directions with their backs turned to one another says so much about the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of Scarlet and Dandy's relationship.  It's a devastating turn for this usually goofy show.  But that's the nature of a Kimiko Ueno episode -- she's always coming at you from the sides instead of straight on.  "Lovers Are Trendy, Baby," is powerful way to close out her considerable run on Space Dandy.  See you, space lovers.

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