This FLCL Alternative review contains spoilers.
FLCL Alternative: Episode 2
FLCL Progressive opened with a lot of promise, introducing two middle school-aged protagonists, plus a lot of weird and intriguing plot threads, all of which it subsequently failed to develop, instead devolving into a mess of reused tropes from the original series and a retread of Haruko’s storyline. FLCL Alternative’s premiere gave us a slice-of-life story about four high school girls, with a bit of weird Haruko stuff going on in the background. Happily, its second episode gives us more of the same, resulting in an instantly more solid series with a far more confident vision.
“Grown-Up Wannabe” is centered mostly on Hijiri, the babe of the friend group, who is dating a college boy. It seems possible that each episode of Alternative will focus on a different one of the girls. However, Kana is still the true protagonist of the series. As she idolizes Hijiri, she also becomes emotionally invested in her relationship with the college guy. In this way, the episode smartly manages to make Kana and Hijiri’s conflict one and the same. The episode title is even a bit of fake-out; Kana seems obviously to be the one playing at being a grown-up, but it turns out Hijiri has been trying to look more mature than she really is, too.
I can’t stress enough, by the way, how incredibly pleased I am to be discussing these characters in terms of their, well, characters. “Grown-Up Wannabe” actually doubles down on the character development stuff, footnoting Haruko’s madcap, sexy nonsense even more than the premiere did, and the episode is better for it. It is a little bit weird that the girls now know Haruko’s name and are just able to accept her showing up and mucking things up from the sidelines, but, then again, this is a sequel series, so some shorthand is excusable.
Furthermore, I actually like it quite a lot that Haruko is still pulling the same crap she always does, getting romantically involved with men too young for her, but that we’re only privy to the Cliff’s Notes of her activities. We’ve seen Haruko do all this before and we know her M.O. so just having her do it in the background works fine. It’s the complete opposite of Progressive’s misguided approach of bringing Haruko’s ridiculous, nigh-impenetrable, sci-fi conflict to the forefront. It’s also a genuine alternative take on the FLCLassic formula, which had a lot more Haruko, but ultimately still used her mostly as a catalyst for stories about kids growing up.
Continuing to make good on being an alternative FLCL, “Grown-Up Wannabe” reuses thematic tropes from the original series (Progressive, in contrast, ham-fistedly dropped in only the series’ most surface-level tropes, e.g., guitars and overflowing). How a person reacts to eating spicy foods as a metaphor for maturity is repurposed here and it works pretty well. (Credit to Megan Taylor Harvey’s vocal performance as Kana; her cry-talking after she eats a spicy kebab is hilarious.) The only negative I’d say is that the metaphor is spelled out with quite a heavy hand. However, that seems to be somewhat deliberate, so that the trope can be reused in a winking kind of way.
Better is that there’s a clear through line of imagery. The spicy food theme is introduced through Haruko manning a kebab truck. Later, when the inevitable giant robot fight takes place, the robots are all truck-based (Haruko is well-aware of the Transformers similarities) and Haruko beats on the enemy robot with skewered kebab meat. Where FLCL Progressive lazily tossed in imagery from the past series and crapped out robots of random designs, Alternative is demonstrating an understanding that thematic consistency was a core element of each episode of the original FLCL.
Perhaps the only aspect of “Grown-Up Wannabe” I really didn’t care for is the use of The Pillows’ music. Though they’ve got a good thing going with “White Summer and Green Bicycle, Red Hair with Black Guitar” as the opening theme for each episode (at least so far), the use of “Freebee Honey” during the action sequence is uninspired. I feel like I can’t really blame the Alternative (or, in retrospect, the Progressive) team too much for this, however. Adult Swim recently released the soundtrack for Progressive and Alternative and—unlike FLCLassic and its liberal use of songs from all over The Pillows’ discography—these sequel series are forced to work with a very limited pool of songs. This is just a theory, but this feels like it was a budgetary issue and that Adult Swim was only willing to spring for the rights to so much of The Pillows’ back catalog.
The result is that The Pillows aren’t used in the same brilliant way, scoring FLCL as they once did and, instead, we just get a handful of the same songs lazily and sporadically plopped into scenes. It’s unfortunate because, for the most part, FLCL Alternative truly does have its own unique identity. However, its perfunctory use of The Pillows feels very much in line with how Progressive handled things (just to reiterate once more: I hate Progressive a whole lot).
After FLCL Progressive sold me a truckload of lies with its promising premiere and subsequent episodes of squandered potential, I was very wary of hoping FLCL Alternative would deliver on what it outlined in its premiere. However, with “Grown-Up Wannabe” the series has actually leaned deeper into its identity, further reducing Haruko’s role to make way for more character development of its four protagonists. Even Progressive’s title was a lot of hooey as the series turned out to be a retread of Haruko’s old storyline and a bunch of lazy trope repetitions from the original series. FLCL Alternative, in contrast, is so far living up to its name.
Joe Matar watches a lot of cartoons and a lot of sitcoms. He’s obsessed with story structure so that’s what all his reviews are about. Joe also writes about video games on occasion. He has an MA in English if you can believe it. Read more of his work here. Follow Joe on Twitter for more fun @joespirational!