While Prism is the recent dark horse hit of manga for me, Rinne no Lagrange is the recent dark horse hit of anime for me.
Lagrange's first episode didn't do anything for me when I first watched it. I thought, "Okay, so, this is another series about a teenager being recruited by a government agency to pilot a robot to save the world from aliens... Why should I care?" Lagrange's primary lead, Madoka, seemed generically plucky and do-goodery, Lagrange's co-lead, Lan, seemed like an Ayanami Rei clone and Lagrange's promo lead me to believe that the series's other co-lead, Muginami, would just be a busty ditz- Lagrange's Asahina Mikuru, if you will.
A friend who tried it was more charmed than I, so I gave the second episode a shot. And I kind of liked it. The series improved from there, and by the time it wrapped up, I really liked it overall. When I re-watched Lagrange, I liked the opening episodes more (even though they were still Lagrange's weakest) because I could better appreciate what they set up and I knew that the story would get better. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kyono Madoka is the sole member of her school's Jersey Club- a jack-of-all-trades who does whatever people need her to do, like save a kid from drowning, play a role in her school's Film Club's latest film, bat in a baseball game, and so on. As gimmicky as the Jersey Club seems, there's a really good reason for why Madoka is so dedicated to it.
An alien princess from the planet Le Garite, named Fin E Ld Si Laffinity (Lan for short), tells Madoka that she needs her to pilot a mech called Vox Aura for a government organization called Novumundus, to defend Madoka's hometown Kamogawa from a mech-piloting alien named Array. Array allies himself with Villagiulio, the deposed prince of De Metrio, a planet that Le Garite once allied with. Our third lead, Muginami, is also one of Villagiulio's followers.
Madoka has the expected "EHHHHH?" reaction when she finds out that Novumundus wants her to keep piloting Vox Aura, but embraces her role when she realizes that she can defend Earth rather than sit helplessly on the sidelines. Lan joins Madoka as the pilot of Vox Rympha, and Muginami switches sides and joins them as the pilot of Vox Ignis.
The aliens in this series are the descendants of Earth's original inhabitants, who fled Earth when civilization supposedly collapsed long ago because of a catastrophe caused by Vox Aura, Vox Rympha and Vox Ignis. Villagiulio's younger sister Yurikano was involved in the same kind of disaster that the Voxes would supposedly trigger. Hence (I assume), Villagiulio wanting to take the Voxes from the Le Garite-allied Earth. Because of what Le Garite told them (and the fact that Villagiulio's approach to trying to get the Voxes is less than diplomatic), Novumundus thinks Villagiulio wants the Voxes so that Earth can't defend itself against him. Lagrange paints Lan's older brother, the ruler of Le Garite, as someone who is used to conquering planets, unlike Villagiulio, so I assume that Le Garite is going to screw over Novumundus in season 2 and Villagiulio's group will be like, "We told you so!"
Btw, "Novumundus" is a corruption of "Novus mundus," which means "New world" in Latin. It's probably a nod to Evangelion- the series that has influenced Lagrange's director, Satou Tasuo, more than any other anime series by far- as well as foreshadowing part of the the plot in season 2. Maybe the Voxes, subverting the legend about them, will cause the world to be reborn or made new again in some way- not necessarily the depressingly literal "everyone dies and becomes primoridial soup" Evangelion way. (Lagrange has too much warmth and faith in humanity to pull something like that.) We'll just have to wait and see.
Despite my plot-heavy description of this series, this season of Lagrange is more character-centric than plot-centric in execution. And that works. It pleasantly reminds me of the first half of Mai Hime, in how it focuses on getting to know the characters and building their relationships while laying down the groundwork for what will probably be a darker, more plot-heavy second half of the story.
While the mech action scenes are well done and the plot is written competently (it all makes sense, and the writers manage to get in a lot of world-building without resorting to info-dumping), Lagrange's tendency to not take itself too seriously (e.g. how pro wrestling influences Madoka's fighting style) and its characters are what sold this season for me. Lan was more emotive and down-to-earth than she seemed to be at first, Muginami turned out to be a conniving jerk with a heart of gold who just uses her ditzy facade to fool people, and Madoka grew on me for her gung-ho impulsiveness and the "selfish" side of her desire to be friends with Lan and Muginami. In the shoujoai.com forum, Cryssoberyl observed that Langrange's opening theme song's title "Try Unite!" captures the heart of season one- Madoka, Lan, and Muginami coming together as friends despite their respective screw ups and opposing backgrounds.
The season ends with Madoka, Lan, and Muginami separated. Some fans found the final episode anticlimactic. It would be if this were Lagrange's only season. It did a good job setting the story up for season 2. It resolved one plot thread and dangled some new ones for the viewers, and it made me want to see what would happen next. As it should. If I hadn't known about the final episode's opening scene before watching it, I may have been annoyed by it. I thought it was a clever way for Lagrange's director to acknowledge that he knows what yuri fans are thinking when they watch this show. There is definitely intentional subtext in this show- mostly between Madoka and Lan. I especially doubt Lan would kick Madoka out of bed.
Lagrange takes place in the seaside city of Kamogawa because Kamogawa funded part of Lagrange's production. They got their money's worth, because everything about Lagrange looks good and its setting is appropriately atmospheric. Nissan designed the mechs, but you can't tell that from watching the show. The mechs look as good as everything else; they just don't betray their sponsorship origin, unlike, say, the flying staffs ridden by the characters in the Subaru-sponsored Houkago no Pleiades.
Anyway, Lagrange is chock full o' concepts that anime fans have already seen. But this series manages to toss a bunch of mech genre tropes that have been done to death into a blender and produce a tasty smoothie.
This series is streaming on VizAnime.