My roommate has promised to watch Neon Genesis: Evangelion because I recommended it to him, and because I think he wants to know exactly why that series destroyed my personal narrative framework and caused weeks of pained emo soulsearching.
Because it did that. I didn't know why, at first, all I knew was that I watched the two movies that end the series and for a long time after felt weirdly hollow. And while the series initially appears to be yet another entry in the now-world-crushingly-huge panopoly of Giant Robot Anime, the big robot fights turn out the merely be the mechanism for moving a larger story forward, which is the death and rebirth of the entire human race.
Spoilers. Right. Eva impresses me first in how horribly flawed every single character is. They are unapologetically fucked up. It gives these people a depth that is difficult for most other shows to even approach, and it's one of the key things that draws you into their world. Their flaws are manifested and explored and exploited, they are the driving force behind many of these character's actions. It's a rarely used but super-effective narrative tool, and it's brilliant.
Second. The bad guys actually win. They get everything they want and more. They end the human race totally in the belief that it will lead to something more glorious, and despite all their efforts our erstwhile heros can do nothing but watch, and sometimes die. It's one of those rare teevee gems that not only doesn't pull it's punches, but kicks you a few extra times while it's got you on your back. So many other series have had huge build-ups to some great world-ending change or enterprise, only to hit the reset button at the last minute and put everyone in a Happy Place so the viewer gets fuzzy warm feelings. Which is bullshit, and dishonest, and makes me angry. Worlds get made and broken and remade, and there had better be fucking consequences. In Eva, plucky heros fight for the future of mankind, and when they lose, humanity is destroyed. That's the way it works.
The english dub is almost better in every way, and I think at least better in a lot of ways, than reading the Japanese subtitles. I don't care how much anime you watch, (and I've watched a whooooole bunch) there is always a slight delay between listening to the characters and processing what they say after you've read it. In some cases, the voice of the character is such an important part of them that trying to find an english voice actor to fill the same role is impossible (see Ergo Proxy, for just one example). In other cases, english is used so extensively in the series that the whole thing might as well be english anyway (see BECK, or Black Lagoon) and the actors do just as well in the roles as the original japanese cast.
I challenge anyone to listen to the english dub and tell me Shinji's screaming, pleading with his father as his Eva is remote-controlled and forced to fight the hijacker angel isn't painful and touching. Listen to Rei after Asuka confronts her in the elevator and yells, "I'll bet you'd even go off an die if Commander Ikari ordered you to!" and Rei responds, "Of course I would," and tell me that isn't the most beautifully understated and sad performance you've ever heard. This experience is superior, in the case of Eva, to living with the processing delay that subtitles introduce.
We must come now to the end of the story, because this post is getting long. The end of the story is so monstrously huge, so epic in scale and execution that I honestly am hesitant to describe it in words. The religious imagery is thick enough that several books have been written about it, some more serious than others. The decisions our characters are forced to make, the doubts that continue to plague them, are all metaphors for how each of us live our own lives. It made me think of my own life on the same scale, the relationships I've made and undone, and how it would all be different if I had just a bit more courage. I'm not even done thinking about it, and it's been a month. I suspect I never will be, just as I told my friends when I had watched the movies, "I don't think I'll ever truly be done watching Eva."
And that is what makes a series great.