On the face of it, if ever there was an anime series that ought to be on Netflix, it would be Space Dandy. A daft, episodic comedy-adventure about a lazy bounty hunter chasing unidentified life-forms across the galaxy, it seems tailor made for the casual audience with only a passing interest in the form. Glancing beneath its bright, peppy surface, however, the exact nature of the show’s appeal is rather more difficult to pin-down.
Accompanied by a nerdy, cat-like alien called Meow and their fastidious old robot QT, each week sees the vain, womanising Dandy embark on a new extra-terrestrial misadventure. According to the nefarious Admiral Perry, Dandy is also the key to future of the universe, sending his gorilla-like subordinate Dr. Gel to capture him, although Gel’s efforts are so woeful that Dandy is barely even aware of his existence.
Since it began, Space Dandy seems to have attracted both the praise and scorn of anime fans in roughly equal measure. With the venerable Shinchiro Watanabe onboard as series director, all the early ads were keen to squeeze in “from the creators of Cowboy Bebop“, which I think wrote an awful lot of cheques this show never had any intention of cashing. Beyond the central conceit of ‘bounty hunters in space’, Dandy has next to nothing in common with the neo-noir stylings of Bebop, offering up something far more playful, self-depreciating and often closer to a sitcom peppered with pop-culture references.
It’s also questionable how much appeal Space Dandy would really have for the casual viewer. What appears, at first glance, to be a straightforward comedy adventure show quickly reveals some surprisingly experimental intentions for both its visual and narrative style.
The show boasts an absolute embarrassment of talent behind the camera, with a lengthy list of seasoned pros and most promising newcomers leaving their own stamp on the series. Whether it be a one-off script, or a stand-out piece of animation, the show makes room for a diverse and fascinating array of these party-pieces to be slotted into the loose overall framework of self-contained episodes. Unfortunately, the series apparent rejection of any continuity has often lead to accusations of it being a ‘saturday morning cartoon’, with Dandy and co suffering all kinds of bizarre fates, only to push on with the next episode as if nothing had happened. I don’t think this is inherently a problem, but it is frustrating for a show that frequently offers glimpses of something deeper than its setup allows for.
While the strike-rate is far better into the second season, the first is erratic and suffers quite a few episodes which fall flat or fail to live up to a good underlying idea. At its best, Space Dandy seems to capture the laddish, tragi-comic desperation of early Red Dwarf, and, however much fun its wackier episodes are, the fact that it can’t (or possibly won’t) do so consistently feels like a missed opportunity. I felt this particularly in the way the series handled its supporting cast. The sheer variety of situations we see Dandy himself thrust into gives us a pleasingly balanced view of his personality, but many of his recurring companions seem wasted through their lack of time in the spotlight – especially female foils Honey and Scarlet.
Space Dandy is, ultimately, a series I find difficult to rate. I’m glad it’s found its way onto Netflix as I think the show has a lot to offer fans of pulp science-fiction and oddball animation techniques, but anyone looking for a straight-up space swashbuckler may be disappointed by its unwillingness to conform and its inconsistent composition. In time, I suspect I’ll also end up appreciating the show more, due to its willingness to always do the unexpected, but at present I still feel my enjoyment is tempered with the frustration that it didn’t quite fulfill its own potential.