[Review] Pop Team Epic – Episode 1

What’s it about? Two trash schoolgirls bounce from one pop culture reference to another in this rapid-fire absurdist comedy.

Nobody else wanted to try writing about this one, so your managing editor is in da house to take one for the team. Pop Team Epic appears to be 24 minutes (but really only 12 minutes) (I’m still not even sure it’s actually full-length?) of carefully crafted trolling. There’s a reason the most iconic image is of the two girls gleefully flipping off the readers, you know.

Two girls, one short with pigtails and one tall with long hair and a big bow, wearing identical school uniforms smile and flip off the audience with both hands. Text at the top of the image reads in both Japanese and English: "Pop Team Epic."
That’s it that’s the show

Let’s start with some positives: Broadly speaking, it’s kind of great to see a weird comedy starring trash female characters. I grew up during the era of “man as foolish and funny, woman as straight-laced and serious” comedies, so I’m always pleased to see shows that allow women and girls to be just as crass, goofy, or pop culture-savvy as the men.

Speaking of that crassness, while Pop Team‘s sense of humor is sophomoric at times (again, see the image of them flipping the bird), I don’t have any real content warnings for it. The two girls are neither sexualized nor infantilized, and the “humor” doesn’t appear to be punching down (unless I’m missing any references, which I certainly could be).

I suppose you could argue that three-quarters of the girls being voiced by men is supposed to be funny for vaguely transphobic reasons, but their performances are subdued enough that it doesn’t come across as an intentional “man in a dress” joke. [EDIT: Turns out the male voice actors are nod to a joke from the manga.] Basically, if you wanted to try it, there’s nothing in it that you need to be seriously worried about.

Two girls, one short with pigtails and one tall with long hair and a big bow, wearing identical school uniforms smile and look at each other. Subtitles: "Are you upset?" "No, I'm not."
That’s it that’s the show Part Deux

That having been said, I also can’t promise that Pop Team will be up your alley, because I’m not entirely sure where this alley is even located. I keep calling it a “comedy,” but I think it’d be fairer to call it an anti-comedy, because there are few, if any, actual punchlines. It’s a multitude of setups with almost no payoff. It is the Infinite Jest of gag shows, a novel I didn’t hate but am still half-convinced was all an elaborate 1000-page troll.

Given that most of Pop Team‘s 30-second sketches are based on some other piece of fiction (TV, video games, etc.), I suppose you could call it “referential humor,” but that suggests there is a joke, and there often isn’t. The bit is usually just “this is a reference to a thing, isn’t it funny that we are making a reference to this thing.” It alludes but rarely parodies.

I’ve seen Pop Team compared to Robot Chicken, but that’s unfair to the effort Robot Chicken put in to making its sketches accessible even to people who were only vaguely aware of the source material. Pop Team doesn’t care if it isn’t accessible, and it frequently is not.

A girl wearing a baseball cap stands to the left of the frame, facing an older man in a lab coat and three figures that look like Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander from Pokemon, except that they all have the elongated face of the other girl (Popimi) in the show.

All of this is compounded by the anime’s format, which crams as many of the original four-panel comics into a 12-minute span at once. I’ve seen some of the comics floating around online, and while I’ve always found them extremely hit-or-miss, the ability to slowly read or even re-read each one allows you time to figure out the reference, soak in the absurdity, and appreciate whatever meme-like non-joke it’s making.

This adaptation gives you zero time to soak. It’s not just throwing things at a wall; it’s stuffing them inside a pitching machine and cranking the speed up to 100mph. It bludgeoned me with sketches until I gave up on even trying to recognize the references, let alone laugh at them.

I can, in a general way, appreciate the sheer brazenness of rejecting every humor-writing rule in the book in the same way I can appreciate Dadaist paintings or theatre of the absurd. Pop Team Epic wants to know if I’m mad yet, and the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean I want to sit through it for 24 (or even 12) minutes every week, either.


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  • Peter

    Just adding a bit to the voice actors bit. I believe one of they primary ways PTE was marketed in Japan was on its voice actresses (since they basically didn’t show anything else about the series in advance) and the male stand-ins are both super popular (Jiraiya and Gai from Naruto among many other prominent roles) so I agree regarding the use of their voices.

  • Martin Wisse

    The male voice actors in the first half was because one of the original web cartoons had them wanting to be voiced by those exact same voice actors.

  • LoveDeluxe

    It’s definitely not for everyone. I love absurdism though, I spent most of the 12 minutes in a state of confused amusement. I feel pretty satisfied with a weekly dose of weirdness on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning!

    Martin Wisse has already mentioned the voice actors, and I found something bizarrely amusing about overdramatic adult voices on cat-mouthed schoolgirls. They sounded like JoJo’s protagonists. I felt both sets of voice actors were good. I didn’t feel it was transphobic, personally, it was played as an extra level of silly self-referential humour. The creators probably weren’t aware of the potential implications…

    Some sketches weren’t funny to me, some really tickled me though. Especially the Your Name one.

    It’s definitely one where you’ll need to have seen a wide range of stuff to get any degree of enjoyment from, as well as enjoying this kind of silly, self-referential, bonkers, often-meta show.

    It’s a bit like Nichijou (which I adore), but less accessible or funny so far.

  • Just out of curiosity, is every episode going to be half the men voicing, and then the second half, the same episode with the women voicing?

    It’s interesting. I watched the first half, and I kept going “eh, i should turn this off” but I kinda couldn’t. I don’t think I’ll necessarily pop in again, but it’s certainly something.