Dragon Ball Super and Serial Protraction

Dragon Ball Super is available to stream on Funimation, Crunchyroll (for now? licensing is weird.), and Adult Swim.

Assuming that you have even the most passing degree of pop culture literacy (and if you don’t, what are you doing on a pop-culture-essay blog?), you absolutely shouldn’t need me to tell you that every iteration of Dragon Ball has a penchant to move astonishingly slowly. It’s practically the series’ defining feature, right up there next to shiny, pointy hair and its seemingly-endless escalation.

Which, to be fair, is hardly a problem particular to the Dragon Ball family of products. Just about any anime based on a still-ongoing manga has this problem, most infamously One Piece, but also a score of others that want to keep running on a weekly schedule without overtaking the story as it’s still being written. Heck, wanting to vaguely match the pace of the source material is even the reason for Pokémon‘s seemingly-endless well of filler.

There’s a whole counterpoint here with My Hero Academia, which wisely takes regular breaks to let its the manga gain some ground, but that’s another article based around a show that I’ve already used as a topic. Easy come, easy go.

Right, Dragon Ball.

While Super may not run as long as its eternally-famous parents, it certainly feels like it has the least actual content of the bunch. The original Dragon Ball leaned a bit more toward adventure than action, and as such while there are still definite story arcs, it’s free to bumble around in them and find interesting detours rather than just move from superfight to superfight. Dragon Ball Z ran a bit over twice as long, but also had quite a long arc to it, sporting a huge cast over its run and, frankly, winning the “original content” race mostly through sheer volume despite keeping a sluggish one-to-one pace with its manga chapters back in the day.

Fun point of reference – recent re-release Dragon Ball Kai, in its quest to fix those pacing problems, ended up editing the series down to less than 60% its original length.

Super, by comparison even to the original Z, is dragging its feet.

Even from the get-go, it’s… not great. The first twenty-seven episodes (about the full season length of standard “two-cour” shows) are spent on full retellings of films that had come out in the previous couple of years – and so by definition animating stories that had already been animated, in the same style, but more slowly and on a presumably-lesser budget. There are some other episodes peppered in there, too, but there’s mostly whimsical concepts, like “the kid characters go explore a mountain with very big snakes“, and overall it’s not an especially gripping start for the first show in the franchise in almost two decades.

The rest of the show does feel a bit samesy, consisting of three tournament arcs, a revisit of a fan-favorite concept from Z (which nonetheless gets sidetracked by Super‘s flavor of inter-dimensional oddities), and an odd short arc that feels distinctly like the longer-form equivalent of jokey filler.

Granted, there are some strong points in there – the last of the tournament arcs has the advantage of a much more free-moving structure than most, for example, and the later non-plot-focused episodes see a more interesting range of subject matter, from acknowledging fan criticisms about “power creep” to a slapstick crossover with another old and famous work of the manga artist (Dr. Slump, as pictured in the article banner) to a fully-campy detour to have these ground-shattering energy-wielding warriors play baseball.

dbsgs.jpg
Plus, my personal favorite, the delightfully-dorky GREAT SAIYAMAN.

So it’s got a fair bit going on, but still not as much as you would expect from a series weighing in at a heavy 131 episodes – 35 of which, by the by, are just for the matches in the final tournament arc, with another whole cour of 13 episodes just for the build-up. Kind of an odd cadence for a show that’s presumably free to move at its own speed.

But ya know what? I don’t really mind.

With the digital-age benefit of being able to watch every episode of a show in order instead of getting the gist of the whole picture from the odd set that you catch in approximately the right order after school, long-running series like Dragon Ball Super just seem out of the question unless you want that to be all that you watch for the next month or so.

So it’s just not something that I’ve watched actively in the same way.

Okay, you definitely have to be paying attention to the screen with your eyes rather than, say, doing your taxes on a second screen – the subtitled dialogue and regular action beats make sure of that. But it’s certainly not something that generally wants for total mental or emotional engagement in the same way that, say, a character drama might.

And I think that these low-attention shows have their own niche, one parallel to (but not necessarily the same as) light “fluff” shows like Hidamari Sketch. You can still get away with losing a few moments’ attention here and there, or not lose too much of the experience by keeping a more passive eye on it.

That’s right: Dragon Ball Super is built for multitasking.

Holding a conversation while you watch? Should be fine; it’s asking you to keep track of so little and explains itself so much that it’s rare you’ll miss anything.

Doing chores at the same time? No problem; you can afford to look back once every few seconds to catch lines of dialogue or its short bursts of intense movement.

Viewing to eat some time on the treadmill? Great; it’s not an especially think-y show, and the physical activity just helps you get in the right state of mind for its action sequences.

(All things that I’ve personally done in tandem with watching the show; I don’t think I sat down and watched an episode of it in isolation after the pilot.)

Now, it may seem as a knock that Super is so undemanding of the viewer’s engagement. And that absolutely will be a hard point against it for a lot of people who (perhaps rightly) want to feel like they aren’t wasting their time on something half-baked.

But at the same time, there are almost certainly certain types of shows that work better for you at certain times for certain reasons. You’ll know when you’re in the mood for a horror flick, for example, or when you want something comedic and optimistic as a pick-me-up or story-heavy to really sink your teeth into. We almost always put these into mental categories by their genres, though.

Why not take the same look at pacing?

Just as an exercise, think about whether right this moment you’d rather watch something snappy like last year’s Baby Driver or settle in for something more long-winded like the extended The Lord of the Rings movies.

There’s definitely a leaning there that isn’t driven by genre definitions, right?

Which leaves, oddly enough, a great space to play in for media that doesn’t want to be always-on all-the-time. Works that, in theory, aren’t on the optimal path to intense viewership and driving conversations.

Still, not wanting too much of me as a viewer got Super to stay in my good graces for 131 episodes, which surely would have exhausted my interest in an awful lot of shows – as a direct comparison, while I quite liked the CW’s take on The Flash, the hour-long format coupled with a network-driven 22-episode minimum each season meant that I was much less inclined to keep up with it starting around its third season – watching the series while running (on-theme!) helped stave off when the show was dragging through more paint-by-numbers episodes between major plot points.

It’s a weird thing, to want a series to stay only partially engaging – especially one so built around increasingly ludicrous spectacle as Dragon Ball.

But in this case, it’s that plodding pace that gives it a place in my viewing habits.

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