Warning: The following article on Spy x Family’s greatest weakness being stagnation contains minor spoilers.
Comedy is a fine art. It is a highly subjective experience and one that comes down to a lot of personal tastes and experiences. What one person finds funny may not directly translate into what another person finds funny. The best comedies, I find, are comedies that experiment with different styles of humor at such a rapid pace that you don’t even notice when a joke doesn’t land. Even then, that’s my own subjective take on the genre and my opinions may not be shared with anyone else. So when a comedy is more or less able to unite the anime industry with universal praise, that’s a comedy that’s worthy of my attention and analysis and the best example of a show that does exactly that is none other than Spy x Family.
Released last year over two cours in the Spring and Fall, Spy x Family quickly became a darling of the anime community, with plenty of fans professing their love of the Forger family and the internet being inundated with literally all of the Anya memes. It was popular enough to not only result in a second season that began airing this past weekend but also an upcoming original feature film. Compared to other new anime franchises that launched last year, that’s a meteoric rise in such a short amount of time that shows that Wit Studio and Cloverworks know they had a massive hit on their hands. However, as time has passed, I think that the series, both the anime and the manga, have fallen into the same pitfall that all comedies inevitably fall into: stagnation.
When Spy x Family began, it had an energetic and exciting premise. You had a makeshift family wherein each member had a significant secret they were keeping from each other. For example, Twilight is a spy who is trying to prevent the reignition of a cold war between the countries of Ostania and Westalis. In order to do so, Twilight needs to become close to a reclusive politician, one who only appears at his son’s events at a prestigious boarding school, Eden Academy. So Twilight creates a fake family called the Forgers, consisting of his new identity Loid Forger, his daughter Anya, and his pretend wife Yor. However, Yor is an assassin who is trying to lie low and is only pretending to be married to Loid out of risk of the government’s secret police discovering her. As for Anya, she’s a mind reader and is terrible at keeping secrets, so she is trying to do what she can to help her fake mom and dad while not blowing any of their covers.
There are plenty of other side characters that exist in the world of Spy x Family and each of them hides their own secrets from others. Yor’s brother is an officer in the government’s secret police and is currently hunting Twilight and Twilight’s rival Nightfall is secretly in love with him and wants nothing more than to replace Yor. Some characters are aware of each other’s secrets, leading to a cavalcade of comedic mishaps. In fact, the series is at its best when these characters are just put into strange situations where they have to constantly lie and deceive others to keep their true identities hidden. It’s one of the reasons why the funniest episodes are usually the ones that involve most, if not all, of the cast interacting with each other.
But that isn’t the majority of Spy x Family’s production. Most of the series decides to sideline its supporting cast and arguably its main cast in favor of elevating its breakout star character, Anya. It’s undeniable that Anya gets the lion’s share of attention in the show given that most of the episodes center around her and the misadventures she finds herself in. In small doses, she is an enjoyable character, one who truly wants to belong to a family and tries so desperately hard to satisfy everyone despite having none of the skills to do so. But when used too much, the show feels like a show centered on the Forger family and more like the Anya show and everyone else is just living in it.
I personally find the issues that Spy x Family has with its narrative structure fascinating because this issue is hardwired into the series’ premise. Structurally speaking, Twilight is the main character because the driving force of the plot is to get close to his target, Donovan Desmond. However, he’s entirely reliant on another character to accomplish his goal, preventing him from actually doing much other than being the supporting character in another character’s story. Granted, Twilight does insert himself numerous times into Anya’s mishaps, but he’s still effectively supporting her as her conflicts and issues dominate most of the screen time.
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And what are those issues that Anya has to face? Basic slice-of-life drama. She needs to pass an upcoming test. She’s trying to become friends with Desmond’s son Damian and that creates a one-sided romance between him and her. Then you have Anya’s schoolmates and their own problems and we see how Anya has to deal with them. It’s fine, but none of it really utilizes what makes the humor of the show so unique. Once Anya becomes enrolled at Eden Academy, the plot grinds to a halt with 9 of the 16 episodes after Anya’s admission having the majority of their runtime centered on Anya’s day-to-day life at school.
Because of this, I find the comedy limits itself and what it can depict. Gone are set-piece moments like Loid renting out a castle using his government contacts just to keep Anya happy or watching Loid and Nightfall go to an underground tennis competition and overcoming every cheat their opponents attempt. They’re still present, but their focus is greatly diminished in favor of the school exploits. I understand that the main plot is reliant on the Eden Academy setting to progress its narrative, but those moments ultimately aren’t funny on a repeat viewing. I define a good comedy as a movie or series that is able to be just as funny as when you saw it the first time. With the Anya segments, those moments are entertaining the first time, but become tired when I watch them again because they all feel recycled not only from earlier in the show but from other anime comedies.
In many ways, Spy x Family is an anime sitcom. We have a recurring cast of characters that get into wacky situations, but like many sitcoms, the series creators decided to emphasize the character that is the most popular. Whether it be Barney from How I Met Your Mother, Chandler from Friends, or Michael from The Office, a popular comedy will often prioritize the characters that fans like most. It’s a smart business decision since it will keep fans coming back for more, but not necessarily the best creative decision. Once you seen Anya try to befriend Damian once only to see it backfire, you’ve seen all of Anya’s attempts. Because of this direction, characters like Yor are now criminally underutilized and feel like an afterthought. Loid, Yor, and Anya are all equally important to the plot, but it doesn’t feel like that when you watch the show.
Ultimately, such a focus has led to the show becoming creatively stagnant towards the end of the second cour of the first season. I admit, I did list Spy x Family as one of my favorite shows of 2022, but as time has passed, while I don’t regret putting it up there given how good the show is when it actually steps away from Anya’s shenanigans, it was probably my least favorite show of that entire list and my opinion has only gotten lower. Given that the marketing for the second season is already prioritizing Anya and her life at Eden Academy over everything else, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Spy x Family won’t be appearing on my 2023 list.
But that’s okay since clearly, the show has found an audience with a certain crowd. I mentioned before about how certain sitcoms will overutilize their breakout star in order to keep audiences coming back, but that doesn’t change the fact audiences will still come back to it. Spy x Family is having its moment and if Wit Studio, Cloverworks, Tatsuya Endo, and everyone else involved in the production of the series want to milk it for all its worth, then by all means go for it. Why not have a life-sim video game centering on Anya and her school life over the exploits of everyone else? I personally may not be a fan of it, but that doesn’t mean that this direction won’t deliver decent comedy. It’s just not the type of comedy I find funny.
So as season 2 begins to get started and it looks like the series will continue to undermine its own strengths in favor of going with the ever-reliable Anya humor, all I can do is look forward to the scenes and arcs that don’t involve her. I don’t hate Anya, but by this point, I want to see more characters like Yor finally get their due. I know we’ll get that in this second season thanks to the upcoming Cruise Adventure Arc, but if supporting character beats are downplayed during that arc in favor of giving Anya more screentime, then I’ll know for certain that Spy x Family isn’t for me anymore. If it actively takes away new and original jokes in favor of the same old stagnant sequences, then like most sitcoms, I see no point in continuing with it if I got the full experience during the first season.