The premise for Working!! is pretty simple: a comedy set in a family restaurant, focusing on the young staff of servers and cooks. This has a lot of potential, and instantly catches my interest just for being a series with a realistic setting that’s not a school. Why don’t more series focus on characters at their jobs? It’s a bigger part of life than high school, but you wouldn’t know it from watching anime. And besides, a premise like this should provide plenty of ripe material for laughs. I can only think of one film that’s mined a similar territory, and certainly nothing in anime. It could work as a slapstick comedy or as a more serious slice-of-life show. Imagine the possibilities.

Unfortunately, Working!! is only occasionally concerned with its setting, and operates more as a traditional high school comedy. Only instead of classrooms and school rooftops, most scenes play out in a kitchen and in a dour-looking breakroom. Occasionally, characters are shown taking orders or washing dishes, but most of their interaction takes place in the backrooms of the gawdy Wagneria restaurant (an homage to the late Wag’s, I wish). And while there’s plenty of opportunity for humor in the daily routines of the servers and short order cooks, almost all of the humor is character quirk-driven and has little to do with the titular subject. If only these gags didn’t grow stale within a handful of episodes.

The central character of Working!! is Sōta Takanashi, a sixteen year-old student who takes a job as a waiter at Wangeria. Sōta is often given to uncontrollable public displays of affection for all things small and cute: puppies, stuffed animals, small children. Despite his philia, he’s still the most “normal” character in the cast, which is composed of fellow servers Inami (a timid girl with a violent case of androphobia), Poplar (a vertically-challenged girl who remains determined to grow taller), Yachiyo (who carries a sword on her belt and spends more time waiting on the restaurant manager than on customers), and cooks Soma (a friendly young man who’s not above blackmailing his coworkers) and Sato (Working!!‘s Sanji-clone). Their manager Kyouko is a few years their senior (aged 28!) and extremely sensitive about her age. While willing to stand up to troublesome customers, she strives to do as little work as possible and seems irked that she has to even show up at all.

Once the characters and their quirks are fully established, Working!! tends to coast on the idea that repeating the same gags about them over and over somehow serves to make them more and more funny. Sota is unexpectedly punched by Inami, Kyouko acts lazy, Yachiyo remains perpetually ignorant of Sato’s feelings toward her, Sato jokes about Poplar’s height… and so it goes for one episode after another. I don’t watch very many comedic series, but most every one that I have has aspired to greater techniques than the simple repetitive nature of this series. This isn’t to say that Working!! is a miserable failure, but that it rarely hits the comedic mark that it’s actually aiming for.

While Working!! doesn’t always work as a comedy, it should be said that I grew to like the characters, at least enough to wish that they were in a series that knew how to use them better. The title is misleading; characters are rarely seen working at all, but rather huddling in Wagneria’s back room for lengthy scenes that don’t really go anywhere (during which, just who is out on the floor, anyway?). Further defying the title, the series doesn’t really get interesting until the characters are shown outside of their workplace. Scenes showing Sōta with his family — composed of even more aggressively quirky and one-dimensional characters than the restaurant staff — at least provides his character with a refreshing sense of depth. He’s not without his own set of stock qualities, but the more we get to know him, the more we like him.

As the series progresses, the plot focuses less on the ensemble cast and more on Sōta, Inami, and their efforts to cure her of her androphobia. Again, there’s lots of comedic and dramatic potential in this conflict, but it’s never quite flushed out. Their awkward relationship is kind of endearing, or at least grows somewhat interesting toward the finale, but it seems like the writers were holding out for another season to really do much with it.

Am I being too hard on a series that promises to be nothing but silly fun in the first place? I don’t know. I’d be willing to forgive its cliches if it had made me laugh more than a handful of times during its 13 episodes. I’m currently in the middle of watching Soul Eater, a title that makes no claims to be a gut-busting comedy, but I’d be willing to bet that I’ve laughed more at a single episode of that than I did during this whole series. So why did I stick it out until the end with Working!!? Somewhere inside the stock characters, repetitive gags, and aimless plot, there seemed to be a seriously funny and potentially touching show trying to get out. It’s a pity that it never quite emerges.

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