“A four episode taste test? And for a last season series? I haven't been this disappointed in you since that lazy two episode taste test for Katanagatari! UNFOLLOWED.” It breaks the mould yes but not without some cajoling. In reality though this is a traditional three episode taste test because the first episode is diametrically different, to the point that it feels like its from a different series, to the subsequent three.
Raucous, racy and disappointingly trashy, the first episode of Sakurasou no Pet no Kanojo (The Pet Girl of Sakura Dormitory) will likely affirm any preconceived ideas you had about a series about an autistic girl and the word “pet” in the title. You'd nod sagely and stroke your beard, perhaps letting out a disparaging “Oh Japan”. But then the next episode is surprisingly affecting. It's still got a perpetual do-gooder as a protagonist (“He rescues cats! Awww”) but behind the shiny pastel coating is a rare and deft touch.
What follows is everything a series intro should do: move the story along, explore the developing themes and advance the characters in meaningful and unexpected ways. Where's the nymphomaniac playboy or the slutty teacher or the screeching animation prodigy? They're all still present, but the volume on them has been turned down. Similarly the silent busty blonde at the heart of the story no long appears naked surrounded by underwear and whatever mental affliction she has is wisely never mentioned. Even the branding of Sakurasou, the dorm that lends its title to the series, as a “loony bin” is turned on its head.
It walks a precarious path though and there are still hints of the caustic bedlam of that first episode. That knife edge is no clearer than in a scene two thirds of the way through the second episode where Mashiro asks the male protagonist to strip, all in the name of progressing her manga. It starts off touching, both literal and figurative, then swerves close to tawdry as the impassive Mashiro asks about sex, but then suddenly concludes as she dismounts and wordlessly goes back to work. Not an erection joke to be heard. A tonal topple one way and the scene could have easily been out of the abominable KissXSis, a topple the other and it's straight into hentai or even School Days territory.
Of course protagonist Sorata has no agency over his responses and the very nature of the show, smutty or not, demands he answer, and for the scene to progress, no other way. But like the entirety of the first episode, it's a hiccup in what is otherwise a fearless exploration of what it's like to be just ordinary when surrounded by brilliance. A Certain Scientific Railgun dabbled in it, but its especially relevant when a quick trip to YouTube can discourage even the most dedicated from pursuits ranging from sketching to Guitar Hero: someone will always be soul-crushingly better.
While not the only theme tackled, some of the scenes are more thought provoking than they have any right to be so early in a series' run, and from an introduction and marketing blitz that vastly undersells the fulfilled potential on display. The probability of lapses back into that bizarro world of episode one is high, but like some other series, Sakurasou proves that by fixating on the niche in order to advertise to the masses you ironically alienate the audience you should be enticing. This is a show that has a promising future and though the first episode may be a portent of things to come, the remainder is both challenging and heartwarming in all the right ways.