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One of the Best Animated Shows of 2022 Is Also One of the Best Comedies of the Year

  • Spy x Family (Image: Crunchyroll)
    Spy x Family (Image: Crunchyroll)

    Want to hear a joke? A spy, an assassin, and a telepath walk into a house and become a family. No, wait, that’s not a very good joke, but it is a loose synopsis of one of the best shows currently airing. The series is Spy x Family, an adaptation of Tatsuya Endo’s best-selling manga that premiered in April and will wrap its first season this Christmas Eve. 

    To break it down a little further than the flippant description above, Spy x Family takes a tale of political intrigue — an almost John Le Carre-style tale of maintaining peace amidst two feuding nations, Westalis and Ostania — and morphs it into something practically unrecognizable for the world of espionage. At its core is an agent named Twilight, who is tasked with spying on a reclusive man who he can only come in contact with by enrolling his child in the same private school that said man’s child attends. The problem? Twilight is an agent with no family, and, in creating one for himself, hijinks ensue, obviously. 

    Enter a new identity: Loid Forger, a psychologist who adopts a young orphan named Anya and dives into an arrangement of convenience with a woman named Yor Briar, who is more than happy to pose as his wife. Her reasoning, just as absurd as his, is that she is a professional assassin attempting to avoid drawing suspicion around her career. And while neither one of them knows the other’s profession, their child Anya — a telepath with little ability to hide her own reactions to the thoughts of those around her — knows their true identities. 

    If it all sounds a bit ridiculous, it most certainly is, but that self-awareness is what makes Endo’s manga and anime so damn charming. The animated series in particular takes what already works on the page and blows it up tenfold, with its comic timing only becoming stronger when presented in motion. This adaptation is an absolute treasure, embracing all the good old-fashioned slapstick that should come along with any comedy series. It throws inane situations at both its characters and its audience, ensuring that practically every scene features at least one laugh-out-loud gag, reaction, or punchline, without ever forgetting the weight that exists behind all the humor. 

    Loid might be the perfect straight man, surrounded by obstacles that make him shed the veneer of perfection and forget his place. Though the series makes note of James Bond’s influence— casually joking about it and making its fair share of references, right down to naming the pup the family eventually adopts after him — Loid is sort of his antithesis. He may be the ideal spy, albeit more in the vein of Mission: Impossible, with the shared love of nonsensical stunts and myriad disguises. But he’s also a truly sentimental man, one who is drawn deeper and deeper into loving the family he’s created for the sake of surviving a mission. It’s much the same with Yor, a character who, as seductive and skillful as she is, could have been reduced to a sexpot assassin. But the series is far more interested in playing with how bashful and sincere she can be despite her bloody choice of profession. 

    But Spy x Family’s heart and soul, as well as the true force of narrative propulsion, is the telepathic child Anya. Every idiotic antic, every misspoken sentence, every far-fetched bit of imagined plotting; every overblown spy adventure she stumbles into from sheer proximity to her adoptive parents is nothing short of wonderful. She isn’t just the glue that holds her family together, but the whole series together, and Atsumi Tanezaki’s voice work, down to the mispronunciation of practically every other word out of Anya’s mouth, is one of the highlights of an already delightfully animated character.

    With Anya, the series isn’t just infused with a natural humor, but a consistently sincere approach to just how much this makeshift family actually begins to mean to each other. Much like the best sitcoms that see mismatched individuals coming together, always throwing in new supporting figures to spice the dynamic up (with Yor’s brother and Loid’s co-worker being two of the series’s best), Spy x Family knows that there has to be balance to these two aspects. Though some might find the show’s pacing a bit wonky, oscillating between action-packed spy missions and deceptively simple slices of life, it’s actually building up the relationships between Loid, Yor, Anya, and those around them — exquisitely breaking up the series into both episodic arcs and slightly fractured vignettes within individual episodes. 

    The series, which has adapted approximately 36 chapters (and some delightful side chapters) into 24 episodes (presumably, its Season 1 finale will cover the 37th), has taken great care in condensing the original story for the sake of fluid storytelling and action, as well as expanding on some of the manga’s seemingly frivolous minor gags. Take an early season episode that takes Anya’s wish to be thrown into a live reenactment of her favorite show, Spy Wars, and turns it into a real night of her dreams (kind of like a Make A Wish situation).

    Her father spares no expense, recruiting personnel from his spy agency as extras for this performance, and Loid even ends up playing her favorite show protagonist Spyman on his way to rescue her from a kidnapping. It expands what is a minor story (just a small aside within an unrelated chapter) into an entire episode, taking real delight in using its beautiful animation to create a fantasy that feels essential to each of its character’s growth. 

    On the flip side, there’s the way the series condenses a multi-chapter tennis tournament (yes, that’s right, a tennis tournament in the middle of a spy manga) into a delightful two-episode departure from Anya and Yor that places Loid front and center, having to navigate his fawning coworker Fiona (also known by the codename Nightfall). It’s an ideal showcase for the animation team’s skill, with its foray into sports just as entertaining as an earlier dodgeball episode. But it also doubles as a smart set-up for the simple beauty that comes from Yor and Loid going on a date after the pangs of jealousy and inadequacy strike. The show’s high-octane goofiness isn’t sacrificed in these sincere vignettes, but used to make each emotional beat land harder; Anya finally having a chance to truly connect with her best friend in school over a day of shopping is a simple but effective complement. 

    This tonal tightrope is maybe best represented by each of Spy x Family’s opening and closing themes and the animation that accompanies them. It’s in the way Anya traverses two different worlds in the first set; the frantic colorful scenarios, spy action, and constant cartoonishness of “Mixed Nuts” that makes way for “Comedy” highlight all the complicated moments and people that she navigates in her daily life, helped along by her loving parents. And it’s even more noticeable in the second set, with both “Souvenir” and “Colors” (seen above, and gorgeously directed by Takayuki Hirao) rather lovingly fixating on the family dynamics at its core in distinctive ways. 

    Spy x Family loves its characters as much as it loves making fun of them — it wants to build them up as actual human beings instead of just toys to be thrown into every passing situation, and that commitment to this disastrous little family is what makes it such a stellar work of art. 

    With the season coming to a close this very week, now is the time to catch up. Much like the manga, the series has dedicated this first season to establishing its characters and building up the world they live in with grace and panache. It’s something of an exquisite aperitif before the heavy meal to come in its second season, with the introduction of grander arcs and weighty backstories that will challenge both characters and the audience alike. Spy x Family hasn’t just found its footing as an ongoing series, but offered audiences a perfect introduction to this wild little story. 

    The Spy x Family Season 1 finale will stream December 24 on Crunchyroll. 

    Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.

    TOPICS: Spy x Family, Atsumi Tanezaki, Takayuki Hirao, Tatsuya Endo, Anime, Crunchyroll