There isn't really that much of a plot - this show is more about its characters and its gobs of stereotypes and historical/political references. Quite a few of the episodes having something to do with World War II, or events just before it, but that's not all this series focuses on, and there are plenty of episodes that aren't necessarily about any moment in history at all.
Each character is a personification of the country he or she is named after. The character the series title refers to, Italy, is cowardly, pasta-loving, and lovable but not very bright. Germany is a stern guy who can't help but like Italy, even as Italy makes him go through a lot of trouble. Japan is shy and hard for a lot of the other characters to figure out. America is loud, annoying, convinced he's the hero of everything, and has problems listening to anything any of the other countries say. France is an enormous flirt. Russia seems nice and quiet, except when he's scary. England can see spirits and creatures no other countries can see.
The list could go on - lots of other countries make appearances.
I know my synopsis isn't much, but there isn't much of an ongoing story unless you count the World War II stuff and other historical events. I started watching this show after seeing some really excellent Hetalia AMVs and fan art and was actually kind of disappointed with it at first. The series artwork was nowhere near as good as I had hoped it might be after seeing the fan art, the animation is serviceable but not great, and the series as a whole is basically just a bunch of jokes. I was also kind of confused because Hulu calls the episodes "excerpts". That's not true - what you see on Hulu really is the full episodes, which are each only about 5 minutes long.
After watching a tearjerker of an AMV about America and England, I was disappointed to see that the anime is almost entirely humorous. I figured it wouldn't hurt to try the show out anyway, though, since it's not even a huge time commitment, and boy did I get hooked.
No, there's really not a story. And yes, the characters are all enormous stereotypes, usually with at least a few unflattering characteristics. I couldn't help it, I fell in love with the show anyway.
One of the things I like about the show is that nobody is bad. The countries (characters) might have crazy or scary leaders, but the countries themselves are never bad people - at worst, they're mischievous. There are those who might be outraged by all the stereotypes (certainly quite a few North Koreans, who may or may not be why the North Korea character wasn't used in the anime). I found them more amusing than upsetting. It helps that every country has both its good points and bad points and that every country tends to be likable in some way.
I had sort of wondered how a humorous show like this would handle more serious events. While the occasional serious moment does come up, they tend to be just traumatic and/or difficult moments in the characters' lives that further their relationship with other characters (countries). What few serious moments there are in the show are handled well, in my opinion, and still fit the general tone of the show.
I was looking at some viewer comments and realized that one aspect of the show might need to be mentioned: the romantic relationships. There isn't really all that much of this, but what there is might get some people's backs up. For instance, Germany may or may not have a crush on Italy and certainly blushes about him a lot - with them both being guys, this could be a red flag for some people. Holy Rome definitely has a crush on Italy, but, in that case, Holy Rome had no idea Italy was a boy (they were both children, and for some reason I can't remember Italy was dressed as a little girl all the time). At another point in the series, France proposes to England (neither France nor England are very happy about this, by the way). The series doesn't make a huge deal about any of this, certainly not as much as you'd expect from looking at Hetalia fandom, but it's there and this sort of thing isn't to everyone's taste.
Overall, I really liked this show. It's the kind of show that's worth more than a few laughs, and thinking about it now that I've finished it gives me warm fuzzy feelings. I'm definitely adding this one to the list of shows I'd like to buy - even though there's no real plot, I love the characters, and the humor is still funny after multiple viewings. Just don't expect there to be anything resembling an ending. The lack of a plot means there isn't really anything to end, so the last episode has, among other things, another snippet in the ongoing joke about Canada (who everyone forgets about or mistakes for America). I'll have to see if the show's continuation, Hetalia: World Series, has a real ending, or if it ends like Axis Powers, by just stopping.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Hark, a Vagrant (webcomic) by K. Beaton - Highly recommended for those who like their history with lots of humor. And the best part is, even if you're not sure if you'll like it, you've got nothing to lose - you can read her comics for free on her site. Just click on the title of the comic in this list. She's also got a book out called Never Learn Anything from History, although I'm not sure where you'd have to go to find a copy of it, since I don't see it in Beaton's store and it's "unavailable" on Amazon.
- Azumanga Daioh (manga) by Kiyohiko Azuma; Azumanga Daioh (anime) - This is another funny series that doesn't have much going on in it but has great characters. Some of them include an adorable grade-school age genius, a cool-looking girl who likes cute animals even though they hate her, and a few teachers who probably shouldn't even be allowed on school grounds, much less put in charge of a classroom.
- Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (anime) - The anime is actually based on a manga by Koji Kumeta, but I have no idea if the manga is anything like the anime. Like Hetalia, this is another episodic series that relies on a large cast of characters who are all stereotypes. Its humor is a bit darker than Hetalia's, but it still might be a good one to check out. The series is about a deeply depressed and incredibly negative teacher who, having failed to kill himself, finds himself having to teach a class that includes the girl who saved his life - the most positive girl in the world. From what I can tell, the anime is licensed, but nothing has been done with it yet. The manga, on the other hand, is available.
- Kyo Kara Maoh! (anime) - Ok, so this particular suggestion may seem a bit out there, but I think it works, particularly if you enjoyed, rather than were made uncomfortable by, Hetalia's habit of turning alliances between countries into crushes and marriage. Like Hetalia, this show is funny, has a mostly male cast, and has hints of romantic relationships between male characters. The main character of the show is a high school student who gets flushed down a toilet into another world, where he learns that he is the demon king and is now supposed to rule a country he knows nothing about when all he really wants to do is go home. Luckily for him, he's got several people who are willing to help him out, give him advice, and protect him. And did I mention he accidentally gets engaged to a guy?