Ergo Proxy might just take the cake for being the most frustrating series that I've ever seen. Not only because of what it does wrong, but because of what it does right—it's based on a great idea, and it features some great art and music, but unfortunately it doesn't know how to capitalize on any of these qualities.
The most immediately inviting aspects of Ergo Proxy are definitely the technical ones. It's set in a post-apocalyptic future in which mankind lives in self-contained cities (“domes”). The main city of Romdo, portrayed as a maze of slummy apartment buildings and burned-out streets that contrast with the clean and orderly buildings inhabited by the government, is a fitting setting that's clearly built with great care and deliberation. The use of shadows and atmospheric lighting is generally excellent. The outside world, an endless plane of ice and rock, isn't exactly a beautiful sight, but it's carefully rendered and features reasonably detailed background art.
The character and mecha designs are also eye-catching. Re-l, whose pale face and bright blue eye makeup form an essential contrast with the dark world, quickly became an icon of the series, and with good reason; it's a truly striking and unique design. Most of the cast is slightly more earthy and realistically depicted than the norm, with the character art generally steering clear of the round-faced round-body designs that have become typical. The vehicular and mechanical art is also of high caliber, with great models for the robotic companions (“AutoReivs”) that feature prominently in the series, as well as the flying airship on which a large part of the story takes place. There are occasional lapses in artistic quality, mostly noticeable in the form of inconsistent detailing on the faces and limbs of a few key characters, but for the most part, this is a visually strong production.
Further augmenting the technical side of the show is a superb soundtrack, ranging from low key electronic atmospheric noise to full-fledged techno rock that, while not always completely original sounding, is well-made and appropriate for the series. The tracks sometimes feature an element of chanted vocals that befit the slightly religious overtones of the series and the general feeling of impending apocalypse. The combination of the dystopian art and the solid musical score gives Ergo Proxy the kind of atmosphere that would make most entries in the “dark sci-fi” category jealous: It gives us the sense of a world on the edge, pushed to its limit, where something is about to break. It breeds suspense and curiosity.
Ergo Proxy is also possessed of a story that, on its own merits, isn't bad at all. Re-l, an investigator for Romdo's Intelligence Bureau, is pursuing a fugitive named Vincent Law, who is sought in connection with criminal activity. At the same time, she notices that high ranking members of the city's government are trying to cover up the existence of monsters called “Proxies,” and decides to investigate the matter on her own authority. As the show wears on we eventually learn a bit more about the nature of Proxies and the nature of the world itself. A futuristic mystery that slowly leads to revelations about the world? Sounds like, with proper execution, this could be turned into an excellent story.
Unfortunately it's the “proper execution” part that can make the difference between great and not-so-great works of fiction, and it's for this reason that Ergo Proxy ends up comparable to a great athlete with a broken leg: Full of potential, but incapable of going anywhere. The first third or so of the series is promising. It moves along at a brisk pace, gradually raising questions and answering them where appropriate, advancing the mystery at a brisk speed. However, after this initial success, the story enters a slump from which it never recovers.
The most noticeable flaw in storytelling is the inclusion of several episodes that have little (if anything) to do with the plot. These episodes generally feature the characters in strange situations that are clearly meant to be mind-boggling or confusing, such as playing on a game show, having a chat in a hellish bookstore in the middle of nowhere, or interacting with strange creatures in a Disney Land-esque theme park. It's abundantly clear that these episodes are here only for the cheap thrill of making the audience think “what the hell is going on?” On rare occasions they give us pieces of information about the characters and the state of the world; however, that alone is not a sufficient reason for the existence of a large lump of material that is essentially irrelevant, and this information could have been conveyed through dialogue, discovery, or any other basic facet of storytelling.
The other major flaw in Ergo Proxy's method of storytelling is the presence of an overwhelming amount of dialogue that strains to be philosophical but is ultimately repetitive and meaningless. Get ready to hear people say things like “this is the ultimate truth that all organisms strive to obtain through self-examination,” or “you think, therefore I am” on a regular basis. There seems to be an underlying theme of personal identity and finding one's reason for existence, and it's conveyed with all the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer to the face. Symbolism, simile, metaphor, repeated themes/motifs, and other standby elements that clever writers use when presenting an idea to the audience—pretty much none of them are in play here, and they've been crudely replaced with line after line of inarticulate pseudointellectual drivel that gets an extremely disproportionate amount of screentime in the course of the series.
Character-wise, the series is split pretty evenly between duds and strong cast members. Re-l, the female lead, is the granddaughter of a government official. She's an interesting lead because she's emotionally detached, extremely competent and strong-willed...but at the same time, her privileged upbringing means that she's used to having others doting on her, giving her a bit of a spoiled side. Watching her develop as the series progresses is a rewarding experience. The male lead, Vincent Law, is of the dud variety; he doesn't really have a whole lot of character attributes other than “kind,” “optimistic,” and “confused,” and while he does eventually learn a little bit more about himself, his personality remains pretty one-note. Perhaps the biggest example of wasted potential in the series is Pino, a young female robot who receives a soul due to a virus that affects robots (yes, that's really the explanation). She does have some strong character moments, but is mostly used as adorable comedic relief throughout the series. Now, imagine that: The show is supposed to be making a statement about identity and self-realization, and here they have a cast member who is both a robot that suddenly has emotions and the ability to think for herself, and a young girl who is coming of age and learning about life and death. It doesn't take a lot of thought to realize that she would be a PERFECT character to develop in order to convey these themes artfully and elegantly, but instead she ends up wearing a bunny suit and cracking jokes for a majority of the show. It's really too bad; they had the proper tool sitting right in front of them, but they didn't know how to use it.
The result of all of the aforementioned flaws is that Ergo Proxy pretty much writes the book on everything that's wrong with the recent trend of “deep” (I use that word sarcastically) media directed at teens: It repeatedly uses dry and overly complicated dialogue to explain relatively simple concepts, repeatedly resorts to the use of plot contrivances like amnesia and multiple personality disorder to explain events, and repeatedly puts its characters into strange “is-this-a-dream-is-this-not-a-dream” situations, to the point where the whole thing becomes laughable, which I'm sure is not the intent of its writers. While not entirely devoid of strong attributes, Ergo Proxy is ultimately an example of a good idea gone to waste.