A Demonstration of Why Premise Criticism is Silly

I sometimes wonder if people realize that criticizing the premise of most fiction is a useless exercise. As I’ll demonstrate later on, if you approach any work of fiction in the right way, you can make the premise sound stupid. An attitude that seeks to find a reason to dislike a premise will always find one.

But what defines a story as good or bad isn’t the premise itself; that’s simply the foundation. What’s important is how well that premise is executed. Can they make you suspend your disbelief well enough to make you accept that there’s a kid who just won’t get in the freaking robot? Can they make you accept that there’s a kid whose face is naturally attractive to beautiful alien girls and beautiful alien boys who look like girls?

Non Non Biyori

I’m not saying you can’t make a personal judgement call on whether or not a particular premise appeals to you, but at the end of the day it’s just that: personal. Saying “that’s a stupid premise” is really only valid in relation to you and your own tastes and interests. And as I’ve already said, your mindset going into anything will play a huge role. If you go in expecting to dislike a show, chances are high you’ll find something to criticize. If you go into a show expecting to like a show, you can much more easily bypass and ignore the inconsistencies that might otherwise interfere with your enjoyment. Premises are kind of a short cut in making judgements: if you dismiss the premise, you dismiss the show. If you accept the premise, you can either accept the show or dismiss the show on grounds of execution.

After all, this is the realm of fiction aka the realm of made-up stories, many of which could never happen in real life. That’s why it’s called fiction, and not real-life-transposed-into-literature.

Kamigami no Asobi

So, with that said, allow me to demonstrate how easy it is to dismiss the premises of shows by using some well-regarded shows as examples (Note: It helps if you read these in a really sarcastic tone):

Blast of Tempest

The story of two really attractive, hyper-logical high school guys, one of whom is a siscon, as they seek to avenge a girl in a world ruled by two giant trees.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

A bunch of cute girls have a hard time as mahou shoujou while a red-eyed rabbit tries to seduce one of them into accepting magical powers.

Spice & Wolf

A fully naked woman appears in a young trader’s cart and the wander around flirting with lots of sexual tension.

Fullmetal Alchemist

An idiot kid loses his brother’s body, as well as his own arm and leg, by casting forbidden science-magic stuff. Then they try to get them back.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

A kid is so scared of his dad that he refuses to fight aliens, even though he has a personalized giant robot.

Hunter x Hunter

A kid goes looking for his dad and has adventures in which he meets a guy who looks like a girl, a horny clown, a fighting doctor and an albino assassin.

Chihayafuru

Some kids play an outdated card game where you slap at memorized poems.

The Eccentric Family

Shapeshifting raccoons fight each other as humans while unraveling the mystery of their father’s death, even though they already know he got eaten.

 Nagi no Asukara

Water-breathing kids and regular air-breathing kids get caught up in a ridiculous love polygon because the sea god is screwing with everybody and no one talks about their feelings.

Baccano!

Immortal people fight on a train called the Flying Pussyfoot.

Fate/Zero

King Arthur is a girl in a show about seven mages with seven historical figures fighting over the holy grail to make their dearest wishes come true. Spoiler: None of them win.

AND I COULD GO ON.

The fine people over at Crunchyroll ran this piece as a feature on August 31, 2014.

21 thoughts on “A Demonstration of Why Premise Criticism is Silly

  1. There are certain premises which indicate without a doubt that a show will be terrible (B Geta H Kei – Yamada’s First Time is an excellent example), but I do see that–especially in anime–one should not discount a show because the premise seems a little outlandish. Anime has the amazing ability to turn ridiculous ideas into great movies and shows. After all, one of my favorite shows might be described as: “Some wolves follow around a girl genetically engineered from flowers because they believe she will lead them to paradise.”

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    • I do shy away at the phrase “without a doubt.” I haven’t seen Yamada’s First Time, and while all sighs point to it being a pretty indulgent, bad show, there’s no guarantee it would be totally terrible. It could have ended up being a compelling statement on the cultural obsession and stereotypes around losing one’s virginity, in the way that Oregairu turned out to be a critique of insular, self-deprecating behavior.

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    • Funny you shoukld mention B Gata H Kei, as I loved that show much more than I think I would based on the premise alone. Behind all the sexual bravado of the main female character there was an interesting story between an awkward couple with different approaches to sexuality.

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    • When B Geta H Kei aired I totally thought that, without a doubt, it was going to be a terrible series and started watching just to have something to compare the good shows to. However, it turned out to be one of the best series of the season. I wrote this about it at the time – “underneath the superficial setup to the show, it’s really a sweet story of two shy losers falling in love and learning what it takes to have a real relationship.”

      It was this series and a few others that taught me the lesson that it’s better to let an anime series prove or disprove it’s worth then to prejudge a series based on it’s premise and potentially miss out on a good series.

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      • One of the best shows of Spring 2010! So, you would say that it’s in the same league as Ichiban Ushiro no Daimao, Angel Beats, and Arakawa under the Bridge? (At least, those were my favorite shows from that season.) Well, you and ruicarlov have me convinced that it might not be as bad as the premise makes it sound. Only anime could pull it off though!

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        • Nothing was going to beat the top 3 (Arakawa, Rainbow, Tatami Galaxy) but B Geta H Kei almost beat Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood for fourth and finished in front of Katanagatari, Durarara, and K-on! S.2, in my opinion.

          One caveat if you do try the show out. I remember the fan service was heavily front-loaded in the series, but, there was some throughout. So, depending on your tolerance of it, you might want to try to find the more censored original TV broadcast version which was the version I watched (and based on the advertising Funimation runs for this series, I am very leery about the dub).

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          • That sounds like good advice, though I’ve found that the more I watch anime, the more my tolerance for fanservice grows. After all, I did watch through The Comic Writer and His Assistants this season. There’s a show which doesn’t mind going to excesses for the sake of humor!

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  2. I wholly agree on the main point of the post – and I find that many of my favorite series are those that won my affections “against all odds”, i.e. they had premises I could not imagine successful and pulled them off splendidly.

    Rather than a quality indicator, I think premises are sometimes used as a quick match-up gimmick between a specific kind of work and its target audience. Harem romcoms sell well because there are plenty people out there who want that stuff, and so creators are not shy about putting in obvious genre indicators, like a “X is a normal teenage guy until a mysterious girl falls on him from the sky!” summary, or a “my little sister” title.

    If the above is effective at attracting viewers through association with other shows, though, there will naturally be those put off by the very same associations. And sometimes shows that try to be more than copycats will get caught up in the crossfire, get mislabeled and dismissed prematurely.

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    • Exactly. Premises do indicate content, which may attract or dissuade different viewers, without really indicating quality at all.

      You can make assumptions, but you’ll never actually know until you see the show.

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  3. A fully naked woman appears in a young trader’s cart and the wander around flirting with lots of sexual tension.

    Wait, you’re saying that’s a BAD sounding premise? 😉

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    • To make it less titillating, I suppose I could have said: “A fully naked young woman appears in a young trader’s cart. She gets clothes and they wander around flirting with lots of sexual tension, but neither of them really makes a move.”

      😀

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  4. Actually, with all the effort you put into it, most of those premises actually STILL sound appealing. I mean, you can’t find a way to make Hisoka sound bad. Horny clown? Count me in.

    I guess that while it’s true that a premise alone isn’t enough to judge a show as bad/stupid, it definitely is enough to tell whether it’s redoing past premises. A show may be unoriginal and still good of course, but then it needs to bring in novelty and/or quality through execution. I don’t think anyone judges a show truly based “on premise alone” – everyone’s pre-season judgements are usually based off premises, promo material, the staff involved… that’s a lot more of information! And based on past trends you try to extrapolate an expectation, which is what every attempt at prediction ever is about. I mean, meteorologists know that if the cloud formation X moves in a pattern Y, there’s a 80% chance that tomorrow it will rain. Then of course there’s also a 20% chance that it won’t, but does that mean that we should throw away the very idea of weather forecast because it’s “silly”? As long as you know how to take it with a grain of salt, you’re fine.

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    • I know people are into weird things, but a horny clown? Bro, that’s scary crap.

      “it definitely is enough to tell whether it’s redoing past premises.”

      True, but this is like, literally, always true of everything. There are no premises that are entirely original. There could, of course, be a show that mirrors the premise of another almost exactly, but I would argue in that case that the people thinking about the new show would not be judging it based on the quality of the premise, but on how much they liked the show they saw before.

      I guess what I was reacting to is people using premises as a short cut when they talk about shows, either for themselves or in their recommendations to others. Because I have met people out there in the wilderness of the internet who say things like: “X show had this stupid X premise. It’s that lame? Don’t watch it; it’s about something stupid.” Are they actually talking about the premise, or just about the show? It’s hard to tell, but either way they are using an inaccurate shortcut.

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