As someone who's watched a lot of male idol anime, I went into Side M not expecting much more than a fluffy plot-less ride, hopefully with some slapstick moments of humour. I haven't watched the original iM@S series, but after watching Side M, I now know I need to give at least the original 2011 series a try. Because Side M is the best male idol anime I've ever seen.
STORY: 7/10 (Good)
The fact that this anime has any semblance of a story already catapults it into above average territory. The fact that the story follows a realistic arc? Nearly unbelievable. We follow 315 Productions as the company gets its start, with 315Pro's only producer/talent scout, Producer (or KaitoP, after his seiyuu) building up his almighty stable of talent (19 idols. 19. Individual. Idols.)
Side M's greatest storytelling method is to introduce the units first as already formed, before delving into each member of those units via the central member. For example, the audience's 'in' to HighxJoker, the largest unit with 5 members, is through Shiki. As we get to know and empathise with him, we see his relationships and interactions with the other four and it spirals out from there.
Characters are individuals, units built up over arcs that don't feel overly machinated or contrived, and all within a 13 episode season that feels just right. That's not to say the story breaks new ground or doesn't resort to tropes, because it does, but the storytelling itself is clear and pure. Unlike with Uta no Prince Sama or Tsukipro, both male idol anime with a non-anime foundational brand, Side M doesn't introduce beats that feel fake. It is a simple story, well told, no unnecessary frills attached.
ART: 8/10 (Very Good)
You can recognise an iM@S series right off, and that style carries through in Side M. Characters are recognisable but not over drawn, each character given enough of an identity to be just right but not too much.
Also the way that Side M utilises 3D in its performance sequences is perfect. Unlike rendering the whole sequence in 3D which can make characters slip into the uncanny valley, Side M only uses it in shots that are backlit or taken from a distance, reserving traditional 2D animation for any shots from the front. Fantastic.
SOUND: 9/10 (Great)
The seiyuu are excellent, pretty much all of them. I especially like that the majority of the seiyuu are unknowns, with Side M being their debut project. I feel like the casting of non-A List seiyuu means that rather than relying on the name first, singing ability second (cough Uta no Prince Sama cough), most of these seiyuu were cast because they can actually sing.
And since this is an idol anime, we're also talking insert songs. And the vast majority of them are catchy as all hell. Units have their own distinct sound within the pop spectrum - Dramatic Stars is drum and bass driven, S.E.M are electronic-infused etc. Side M has been around for a while and I highly recommend checking out the discography for your best unit, you won't be disappointed.
CHARACTER: 8/10 (Very Good)
When I started Side M, I was very sure that there was no way in hell all 19 idols would be getting characters or backstories. But I am so glad to be proven wrong. While our main trio of Tendou, Kaoru and Tsubasa (Dramatic Stars) get the lion's share of individual development, the remaining units each get at least one episode to shine. And the greatest thing about this anime? The majority of the idols are in their 20s. Our main trio, Dramatic Stars, are made up of men that are older than 24. S.E.M has two members in their 30s. Finally, an idol anime where not everyone is in high school!
While of course I have my best unit (S.E.M or Dramatic Stars depending on the day) and my best boy (which changes depending on my mood, but mostly Tendou that pure cinnamon roll), each of the 19+ characters have an identity. Even the faceless 315Pro President. Sure those identities aren't necessarily original, but they're charming takes on the tropes.
Also, if you're wondering like I was why there were unnamed-and-yet-noticeably-designed characters that occasionally pop up during the episodes, those are cameos. In the official Side M game that spawned this anime, 315Pro has a LOT more than 19 idols. Which means we have to get a season two. Right. RIGHT.
ENJOYMENT & OVERALL: 9/10 (Great)
For an anime I started just to pass the time with, the fact that I waited on tenterhooks all week for a new episode is a sign in and of itself to me just how much I enjoyed Side M. It's a great, easy blend of slice of life with idol anime, something with just enough stakes to keep you on board, characters that are compelling, charming and cute and a simple story which is well executed.
If you're looking for a male idol anime to watch, watch Side M. If you're looking for an idol anime to watch, watch Side M. If you're looking for something that will be fun, fluffy entertainment, something to make you smile and escape from IRL for a little while, watch Side M.