2020 Anime In Review—Biggest Letdown: Carole and Tuesday

by Rakka   Tags: anime lists

COVID19 unexpectedly gave me a lot of time this year to watch anime, read novels, and in general catch up on my media consumption. For better or for worse, this also means I watched a ton of amazing shows this year, of which I’ll highlight a few in a series of posts.

Note: general spoilers for the overall show, though exact endings/details are not revealed.

First up is Carole and Tuesday, which despite all the promise and a strong start, ended up being my biggest disappointment. On paper, this show should have been a slam-dunk: two teenagers with a love for music team up to make it big and change the (Martian) world, with a highly regarded director in control, 24 full episodes to tell their story, and Netflix funding the show. A quick glance at the plot makes it look like it should be the go-to recommendation for “serious” anime, a demonstration of how fiction can teach us about our society. Carole pulls at all these real-world, timely threads from its speculative-fiction perspective: the impact of AI on human creativity, shown through songwriting and the music industry; AI/ML-based targeting influencing elections and politicians; presidential candidates pandering to the fringes of their base; the freedom of people to express their gender as they wish; the struggle of refugees seeking a better life; the fake, airbrushed nature of the entertainment industry. But perhaps already evident is that this series also overstepped and tried to do too much, in the end managing to say just about nothing at all.

The strong start of the show makes the eventual disappointment even worse. We meet Tuesday, an aspiring guitarist on the run from her overbearing politician mother, as she stumbles on Carole, an orphaned street pianist, playing a wordless melody that speaks to her even as everyone else ignores it, busy with the bustle of everyday life. They then form the titular duo, with Tuesday providing the vocals that Carole struggled to come up with. On the strength of a viral performance, they make it onto a competition TV show, and so their journey to stardom begins.

In this first arc, we get a lot of development, and things move along at a decent pace, with the anime focusing on showcasing how duo is growing musically and learning to work together. Their rival/foil, Angela, sets up a clear contrast, with the two of them battling over the aforementioned theme of AI vs. human creativity. As a starlet making a jump from modeling to singing, she has access to resources that Carole and Tuesday cannot imagine, particularly access to the best producer and songwriting AI in the industry (the latter of which is shown to be standard fare in the future), all thanks to an overbearing mother trying to live vicariously through her daughter. Carole and Tuesday come up against these seemingly impossible odds as the “old school” artists who actually write their own music, helping them stand out in this scene of carefully mass-produced, inoffensive, artificial pop.

Even the soundtrack (perhaps intentionally) helps set up and develop the conflict in this first arc. For instance, compare Carole and Tuesday’s song, “The Loneliest Girl”, with any of the other songs in volume 1 of the soundtrack—the rest are all forgettable pop pieces, while this song is actually genuinely good.

After this arc, however, everything unravels. The show starts wasting a lot of time developing ultimately inconsequential side characters, like a DJ who inexpicably gets a redemption arc. Carole and Tuesday meander under the pressures of their newfound (minor) fame and end up on the stage of future-SXSW, plateauing in their growth. Angela gets more screen time as well, starting to rebel against her mother’s wishes. Now, even with the issues here, had the show stuck to just these plot threads and kept the focus on the cast so far, it would have ended up as a solid, if not earth-shattering, series. In particular, watching Carole and Tuesday struggle to keep their artistic integrity in the face of fame and fortune and emerge stronger for it would have been an interesting way to continue their character development.

Instead, the show starts rapidly introducing the other themes above, even though we’re already halfway through the season. Now, this isn’t a complaint about introducing politics—quite the contrary, developing all of these plot threads would have been another way to build an extremely interesting show. The issue is that there simply isn’t time to address all the thinly veiled references to contemporary events we suddenly get. Carole’s mother, a presidential candidate, blindly follows her ambitions and a sentiment-reading AI and veers far to the extreme right in policy, while the show drops protests by/about refugees as well as a confusing romance arc between Carole and a reporter digging for dirt on her mother, while introducing another industry veteran and trying to give her a redemption arc as well, while also sending our duo on, essentially, an MMORPG side quest to visit a non-binary character whose actual purpose in the plot I frankly cannot remember. Tired and confused yet?

In the end, the show just runs out of time. Instead of giving anyone a fully-developed, satisfactory ending, we just get one last song to end the series, and then everything gets dropped on the floor. If just some of the side stories and themes had been trimmed, and more time given to the core characters and themes, this would have been an anime that “tells a serious, real-world story”. But unfortunately, we instead got a jumbled mess of a show, swinging from one character to the next like a generic MMORPG fetch quest in which the ending always seems to be around the corner, if Carole and Tuesday just talk to one last character—the kind of quest that games now parody by sending you on a series of increasingly ridiculous banal requests. As viewers, we want to see Carole and Tuesday, not an annoying DJ character who makes like an NPC and disappears as soon as his arc ends.

Hence, I found Carole and Tuesday to be just a letdown: despite all the initial promise, it tried to do too much and so felt like it did absolutely nothing at all. Our main duo doesn’t really go anywhere after their competition, all the side characters disappear, and while the political references are settled in a hopeful manner, the resolution we’re given is as thin and fake as the veneer of the music industry that the show worked so hard to portray in the first half, leaving me dissatisfied and disappointed.