A Certain Magical Index: the problem of competent mediocrity

A Certain Magical Index is a bit of a mystery to me. I decided to watch it after thoroughly enjoying A Certain Scientific Railgun and hoping for more of the same. At first glance, the two shows have the same textureless, tropey blandness which I found so wonderfully, tolerably, adequate in Scientific Railgun. They share a setting. About half the casts overlap between the shows. They repeat the same relentless themes about friendship and the ganbatte ethos. The same studio produced both with equivalent visuals and music. The fan service comedy is equally disgusting. Sounds like a sure hit, right?

But for some reason, I found Magical Index intensely unlikable. Though it is not the worst anime I have ever seen, I do not exaggerate when I say that it might be my least favorite. To clarify, I don’t exactly mean that I disliked or disfavored it. It isn’t a bad show. Rather, it just gets a big flat zero, a null value. I am trying to think of examples for comparison, but I can’t. And that is precisely my point: Magical Index falls into that category of forgettable “just OK” media that leaves no lasting impact, like a nameless Hallmark Channel movie droning on in the next room while you make dinner. Whereas genuinely bad shows often offer some love-to-hate nonsense to marvel over, Magical Index just is. Why are two shows, with the same source-material writer, the same setting, the same characters, the same themes, the same production company, the same production values, so different?

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A Certain Scientific Railgun: in defense of competent mediocrity

I really enjoyed A Certain Scientific Railgun but have trouble explaining why. The series did not captivate me; I meandered through its 24 episodes over the course of a full three months. I did not identify with any of the characters or find the plots particularly engaging. The science fiction elements did not offer any substantial commentary on the present or a plausible future. Thematically, it never drifted far from the bland anime “ganbatte!” ethos about virtuous friendship overcoming all obstacles.

But somehow, I don’t mean any of those observations as criticisms. To the contrary, I think that this lack of ambition deserves praise. If Railgun lacks original ideas or plots or characters or well, original anything, it makes up for its blandness with excellent execution. Though I cannot identify a single individual feature as more than “good,” the whole package excels at “competent mediocrity” like a pre-cooked microwave macaroni meal that somehow manages to taste great after a long, tiresome day.

My thinking regarding Railgun proceeds something like this:

Do you like the cheese? Not really, it’s alright.

Do you like the macaroni? Not really, it’s alright.

Do you like the seasoning? Not really, it’s alright.

Do you like the pre-cooked microwave macaroni meal? Yes, give me more!

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