Review: Arcane (s01)

We lost ourselves. Lost our dream. In the pursuit of great, we failed to do good.

I don’t generally make a habit of reviewing tv shows – I watch few enough, only a handful of them SFF, and I finish even fewer. But ArcaneArcane deserves an exception. That a videogame tie-in animated series, and one for a game I’ll never play or care about, would have turned out to be one of the best-written things of the year was not on anyone’s bingo card, but it sure is a welcome surprise regardless.

The plot is rather hard to summarise – there’s a lot going on there, and I personally appreciated going in near completely blind. I appreciated is that it’s both very accessible in that you don’t need to know anything about League (thanks fuck) to be able to enjoy it without getting lost, while avoiding infodumps and awkward exposition. Two sisters, two scientists fighting to make magic accessible, a shining city and its unglamorous underbelly…the main elements may sound fairly basic, but it’s all done with such an incredibly nuanced, delicate touch. The writing is exquisite. There were several points where I thought it was going to descend into an obvious cliché, but then it just…didn’t. Plot untwists, so to speak. And it sidestepped them masterfully in a way that felt very natural and made sense with the characters – subversion for the sake of subversion or anticlimax are not something you’ll find here. Most of all, I love that it’s not a show with an antagonistic relationship with the audience, trying to trick or shock us at any cost.

And, oh, the characters. There is not one boring person in the show, and the relationships between them are exactly what makes it so great. Likewise, while it’s not a happy show, and gets very dark in places (see: content warnings in the end), it’s not needlessly grim. The characters are mostly well-intentioned, sympathetic, and various degrees of idealistic, forced to deal with difficult circumstances and make hard decisions, rather than a bunch of terrible people in a crapsack world. Even the villains have their very human sides. And that makes it all the more impactful. You can’t help but get attached and care.

My favourites were Viktor, a disabled, chronically ill scientist, and Vi, a bruiser with a tragic past. Given Viktor’s disability, appearance, and Slavic accent, I feared as soon as I saw him that they’re going to descend into all the unfortunate clichés and make him a villain who’s going to lead Jayce down a dark path, but (as just one, early example of the untwists) turns out he’s genuinely a sweet and likable and occasionally mischievous guy who wants to make everyone’s lives better. Quiet but not boring. As for Vi, well, apart from the superficial (look, I’m queer and the fact is that both characters fall into my types, of course it factors in), it’s hard to go into the details without going heavily into spoiler territory – it has a lot to do with her complex relationship to her sister. I can say, though, I appreciated that the show is fairly open about her attraction to women – it doesn’t go all the way (perhaps in the next season?) but it’s very clearly there.

Viktor from Arcane explaining something
Cupcake Vi GIF
viktor from big nerd hours

Have some gifs of Viktor and Vi 😁

Vi from Arcane winking

If there’s one central theme I could point out, it’d be “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Though there’s really only one character that can be called an outright villain, all the characters’ actions can sometimes have unintended fallout. That doesn’t mean not trying to do better when they realise, it’s not this cynical, but it does make for some great poignant moments. Aside from that, it also touches upon trauma rather heavily, especially with Jinx, and family, found and otherwise, is a recurring theme with all of the characters. I also liked that, unlike the vast majority of fantasy, a main plot point is technological progress and trying to bring magic to a wider array of people to make their lives better. It’s not technologically stagnant or regressive, not set in a time after some golden age when magic is dying. And it goes into the consequences. It’s so wonderfully refereshing.

Of course, there’s also the animation. The gorgeous, gorgeous animation. I love how it looks like an animated digital painting so much. There’s a lot of background detail that’s going to make rewatching fun and the expressiveness of the characters (see: the gifs) added so much to the already-excellent writing. This, the excellent soundtrack…it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

While, yes, I suspected I’d like it given that I got it personally recommended multiple times, I genuinely did not expect to see this much nuance, or emotion. I did not expect this level of attachment to the characters. I did not expect I’d get as obsessed with it as I am.

Now excuse me while I rewatch, try my best to get more people into it, and hunt down fanart and fic while waiting for season 2 to come and break my heart.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: those who want a character-focused show with beautiful animation and lots of feelings, those looking for LGBTQ+ or disability rep, emotional masochists
Not recommended to: I have a hard time thinking of any obvious drawbacks, honestly, if you like SFF you MUST watch this (but also, content warnings)

Content warnings: animal cruelty, abuse, death of a child, implied suicidal thoughts, some body horror

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