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I don't usually care for idol shows, in part for their rosy depiction of the business and also because the cast, aesthetics and songs have a safe, samey feel. Zombieland Saga avoids these; this may have to do with being an original copyright sponsored by obscure brands, much like how many modern classics were B-films in their time: smaller stakes allow more artistic freedom. It feels like someone took the first episode of Love Live, the one ending with "I do! Live!", and decided to do the exact opposite. What is clear is that it had a lot of creativity, passion and a good enough animation budget.
It is not slice-of-life; episodes vary, some plots feel picked out of a hat, others are almost conventional for the genre. Above all it is a comedy, and the early episodes made me laugh out loud in a way very few things can. You haven't lived until you've see this lot improvise a concert with bare-bones preparation. The later drama is more hit-and-miss, the worst being the finale, but still gives the girls real depth and pathos. The songs are great, and in a wider repertoire than just J-pop. Some real problems in the idol industry come up, such as eating disorders, managers treating them as mindless minions, being forced to hide their normal selves from the public, and getting boared during training.
What makes the show work is the cast. Most idol characters are made to appeal to specific demographics, which badly narrows what they or the story can do. The girls of Saga are allowed all kinds of different attitudes and backstories (indeed several are former entertainers returning after lying low for years) with a lot of deep-running disagreements and tensions. It is telling that group shots, including fanart, usually gives everyone a distinct pose and expression; how many cute girl shows can this be said for? And like Konosuba, the animators revel in subverting their cutesy designs, making them look hideous when out of makeup, yelling at their producer, or falling to pieces on stage. So between their differences and their hardships, their gradual bonding feels all the stronger, and in contrast to calculated waifu-bait characters they feel deeply genuine, and truly alive.
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