Writing the synopsis was a bit nerve-wracking. It's pretty much impossible to write a decent synopsis of this series without spoiling something, but I've tried to at least keep the spoilers to a minimum.
On the first day of high school, Haruhi Suzumiya introduces herself by saying that she has no interest in ordinary humans and would like to speak to any espers, aliens, or time travelers. She briefly joins every club in school, only to drop out of them when none of them satisfy her desire for the weird and interesting. Kyon, one of her classmates and the only normal human being she's willing to talk to for an extended period of time, inadvertently inspires her to start her own club, the SOS Brigade. Haruhi forces Kyon to become the club's first member, takes over a mostly empty former club meeting room, and simply assumes that Nagato, a quiet girl who is the last-remaining member of the Literature club, will now become part of the SOS Brigade.
Haruhi's goal, via the SOS Brigade, is to find anything weird and interesting. To start things off, she makes sure that the SOS Brigade is filled with people you often find in anime and manga where weird and interesting things happen. Nagato is the quiet one. Haruhi forces Mikuru, a buxom upperclassman, to join: Mikuru is the group's moe element. Koizumi becomes the group's "mysterious transfer student."
Throughout Haruhi's quest for interesting and unusual things, she doesn't realize that she has all of that right under her nose already: Koizumi is an esper, Nagato is an alien, and Mikuru is a time traveler. All three characters enlist Kyon's help in keeping Haruhi happy and entertained - although Haruhi doesn't realize it, she is supposedly a super-powerful being who can destroy and remake the universe on a whim. In an effort to keep Haruhi entertained, the SOS Brigade looks for a missing student, participates in a computer game duel, plays baseball, investigates a murder mystery, and more.
I've now seen the first season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya twice, first in DVD order (at least a couple years ago) and then in broadcast order (more recently). I own the DVDs and will write a post about the extras and English dub one of these days. Watching the series in broadcast order using the DVDs is...not easy...so I did that part of my viewing on Crunchyroll.
One of the questions you see, over and over again, in Crunchyroll user comments for this show is “What order should I watch this show in?” I know this answer is probably frustrating to Haruhi newbies, but I'm still not sure which order is best. DVD or chronological order is less confusing (but still confusing, because some details work better in broadcast order), but watching the show in that order means that it feels “finished” about halfway through. If I remember correctly, all the really awesome, action-packed, climactic stuff happens in the first half of the DVD order, so the ending of the series feels like a letdown. If you watch the series in broadcast order, the ending is more emotionally satisfying, but you'll probably spend a good chunk of the series really confused. Even short story arcs, like the one with the island murder mystery, are broken up by other episodes.
This is one of those series that has a huge fan following. Although I got sucked in by this show's strangeness, I don't think I'm as in love with it as some people. For me, this series is at its best during its stranger and more action-filled episodes. I enjoyed the camel cricket episode and laughed at the thought of all the strange things going on right under Haruhi's nose, while she was so desperate to find anything unusual going on in her world. I loved the bit where one of the students not in the SOS Brigade was revealed to be more than she appeared – that battle was jaw-dropping, and its earlier placement in the DVD order was part of what made the later episodes so disappointing (in chronological order, this episode is near the end of the series).
Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm leaning more and more towards recommending watching this in broadcast order instead of chronological/DVD order, unless you absolutely insist on being able to understand everything that's going on, all the time. In DVD order, many of the series' questions are answered relatively early on. In chronological order, part of the enjoyment of the series comes from watching the buildup to the answers to questions like “Is Haruhi really as powerful as everyone keeps saying she is?” and “Why is Kyon, an ordinary high school student, part of Haruhi's group?”
While I enjoyed watching the characters and didn't dislike any of them, I can't really say I liked most of them, either. Nagato was probably my favorite, but only because of the awesome things she could do. I particularly loved her in the computer game episode and the episode in which a non-SOS Brigade member revealed her true nature.
Mikuru was cute, but annoyingly wimpy. Koizumi was remarkably uninteresting, despite his secret. I also found his complete focus on keeping Haruhi entertained somewhat discomforting. I mean, I know that, from his perspective, anything that entertained Haruhi was good because it kept Haruhi from casually destroying the universe. However, there was never even any suggestion that he disapproved of Haruhi, say, forcibly stripping Mikuru naked and dressing her in various revealing costumes. Kyon didn't work as hard as he could have to stop Haruhi, but he still did more than Koizumi. Speaking of Kyon, I can't really list anything specific that I disliked about him, but I can't say I liked him either. And then there's Haruhi: I actively disliked Haruhi in some episodes, for her habit of steamrolling over everyone and not considering others' emotions. However, I have to admit that she does get better near the end of the series (in broadcast order).
I'm ambivalent about the romance. For much of the series, Kyon is clearly attracted to and interested in Mikuru, I guess because she's cute and girlie and has enormous breasts. Mikuru seems interested in him as well, although she does her best not to act on that interest – in broadcast order, you find out the biggest reason why near the end of the series. For viewers at least, it seems obvious that Haruhi has a crush on Kyon (although I still don't understand why, then, she kept bringing Mikuru's breasts to Kyon's attention). Kyon, for the most part, finds Haruhi to be annoying and exhausting and doesn't realize why his expressions of interest in Mikuru annoy Haruhi.
While I viewed Kyon's interest in Mikuru to be surface-level at best, I did feel sorry for him for basically being forced to end up with Haruhi. Once Haruhi fell in love with him, he could never date anyone else, because hurting Haruhi's feelings could result in the end of the universe. Even as I thought all of this, I still found some of the moments near the end of the series (in broadcast order) to be very sweet. I liked Haruhi's somewhat embarrassed (nervous?) offer to share an umbrella with Kyon, and the final (broadcast order) episode made me forget I ever felt sorry for Kyon as I grinned my way through Kyon's realization that he likes Haruhi and Haruhi's reaction to Kyon's compliment (this episode doesn't work nearly as well in chronological order).
I honestly don't know if I recommend this series or not. I loved the weirdness of it all, and watching it in broadcast order gave me a better appreciation for why this show has so many fans. However, even though I liked the broadcast order better than DVD order, I disliked the feeling that the show could have been planned better. There are shows where the order of events is all out of whack, and it all feels like it took some thought on the writers' part – Baccano! is a good example of this. That's not how the first season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya feels. I tried to figure out some kind of rhyme or reason to why the episodes were broadcast in the order they were, and there didn't seem to be any – the order of the first few and last few episodes seemed planned, but, aside from that, the broadcast order of the middle episodes could easily have been drawn out of a hat. I prefer the confusion in confusing stories and shows to feel more orchestrated.
As long as Crunchyroll doesn't remove access to this series, I plan on watching more of it, even though I don't currently plan on buying more of the DVDs (if it's even possible to purchase them in the U.S. anymore – I haven't checked). Crunchyroll is also streaming The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya (25 episodes), Nyoron Churuya-san (13 episodes), and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya season 2 (14 episodes).
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Baccano! (anime TV series) - If all you'd really like is a fast-paced series in which increasingly strange events are shown out of order and all is made clear later on, you might want to try this. Just be warned, it's pretty violent. I've written a couple posts about this anime.
- Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan (anime TV series) - If you got rid of the confusing episode order and ramped up the blood and gore in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, you might get something like this series. In the future, a man named Sakura creates the technology for eternal life, which, unfortunately for the women of the future, freezes girls' aging process once they turn 12. The angel Dokuro is sent back in time to kill Sakura before he can invent this technology. However, she falls in love with him and tries to keep him alive instead (bringing him back to life whenever she accidentally kills him, which is often), opting to find some other way to change the future. Those who'd like something else high energy, with a heroine who has a habit of torturing (in this case, literally) the guy she loves, might want to try this. I've seen this series but have yet to write about it.
- Lucky Star (anime TV series) - This humorous series focuses on the lives of several Japanese high school girls. I haven't actually seen this, but I've seen it mentioned frequently in conjunction with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
- FLCL (anime OVA) - If you'd like something else that's high energy, funny, and confusing as heck, you might want to try this.
- K-ON! (anime TV series) - I haven't seen this, but the look of the show and the show's focus on a small club makes me think of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Those who loved Haruhi's stint as the lead vocalist in a band (her intensity during "God Knows" was awesome, and I loved how much she enjoyed actually being involved with other people for once) might also enjoy the show's music and school rock band aspects.
- Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another high energy school series and even more focus on romance might want to try this. Yukino has spent most of her life making herself look like the perfect student, so she's outraged when, in high school, she finds herself with a rival in the form of Arima, a student who may really be as perfect as Yukino has pretended to be. When Arima confesses his love to her and then accidentally learns Yukino's secret, what will Yukino do?