I'm generally pretty forgiving with TV shows. The potential I see in a series is usually interesting enough for me to keep coming back, apparently without ever getting disappointed by continuing story failures, character stupidity or bad writing. It's why I was able to put up with two seasons of Stargate Universe, the first season of Dollhouse and all of The Walking Dead so far. I'm an optimist.
That's the only explanation I can come up with for why I stuck through Sword Art Online for the duration. Because this is not a good show, despite what I kept telling myself - for the first eleven episodes, at least. There's a kernel of good ideas somewhere under the pseudo-fanfic story progression, and the setup - real-world death for anyone who dies in the MMO they can't log out of - could be a really interesting look at how people behave in online environments, and why they act the way they do.
Sword Art Online tries to stick with that thought for most of two episodes, then gives up in favour of illogical character development, poorly-explained exploitation of game mechanics and a romantic subplot that, if I'm honest, goes nowhere - but gets there too fast.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Also, this is a bit of a long one.
SAO has quite a bit in common with .hack//SIGN: both take place in an MMO world, both feature characters who can't log out of the game, and both feature a soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura.
But where .hack//SIGN was, at its heart, a deliberately-paced mystery show, the very first episode of Sword Art Online explains exactly what the rules are: no-one can log out of the game until all 100 levels of the dungeon have been completed by at least one player, and if you die in the game your VR headset in the real world will fry your brain - killing you there, too. Sword Art Online, as a result, can concentrate more on the action than fannying around, as .hack was wont to, with investigation and long, dull conversations between characters figuring out what's going on.
The first 14 episodes are essentially a self-contained story, and frankly I think I'd have preferred it to end there. The second half of the series introduces a lot of new characters, uncomfortable themes and an entirely new set of rules - additions to the story that feel like a real bait-and-switch after the almost-satisfying "conclusion" in the previous episode.
That first half isn't great, though, by a long stretch. The story, as mentioned above, races ahead - with two years covered in fewer than ten episodes. It jumps around in fits though, so there's no consistent sense of time passing. This has the side effect of failing to give the audience a sense of how often, and for how long, the two main characters get to see each other, how much they hang out when they do, or what their relationship is generally like. As a result, when they finally hook up (in the form of a marriage proposal, rather than any kind of dating period) it feels like it's come out of nowhere.
This isn't helped by the first episode showing their "honeymoon", where they don't really seem to know what to do with (or around) each other. My optimism was hoping for some interesting commentary on online relationships and the reality of spending time with someone vs. playing a game with them, but before we could see any of that, Kirito and Asuna were adopting Yui, a mysterious amnesiac little girl they found in a forest. Having Yui around for an episode before she's adopted by the couple - as well as some explanation for why Asuna is so keen and Kirito so willing to go along with it - would also have been a worthwhile exercise. More time for them to get attached to her couldn't have hurt, at least - it's almost like they just imprint on her as soon as she turns up.
There's also the totally anticlimactic boss battle. It kind of springs from nowhere (on the 75th floor of the dungeon instead of when the players reach the 100th level), it turns out to be someone Kirito's already fought (and lost to), and it's over in no time. The fact that, despite being killed by the boss, Asuna and Kirito both survive the encounter in the real world also raises questions about how permanent death in the game actually was.
And I thought the assassin's guild, Laughing Coffin, was going somewhere, but they just seemed to be forgotten about.
The second half of the show is set in a different (but similar) online game called ALfheim Online, which removes the permanent-death threat and the no-logout barrier, meaning there's very little peril. Players whose avatars are killed need to wait five minutes for a respawn (there's mention of a "death penalty", but nobody ever seems particularly worse-for-wear after respawning, so the time limit might be it?), but it doesn't stop a lot of melodramatic posturing about saving other players.
A huge amount of the show is basic juvenile wish fulfillment stuff, but in the latter half there's a ridiculous increase in the fanservice, Kirito's able to clear an entirely new game in less than a week when SAO took an army of top-flight players two years to get 3/4 of the way through, and it even flirts with harem tropes in a couple of places. Plus the whole "sister-who's-really-a-cousin-but-also-a-romantic-interest" embarrassment. And then there's the altogether-too-creepy all-but-rape, complete with a couple of tentacle creatures introduced for no apparent reason other than to do uncomfortable things with the female lead.
The "proper" ending of the show was kind of hollow too - we don't get to see how Asuna and Kirito's relationship from inside the game translates to the real world, for one - but maybe expecting some social commentary was a bit much by the end. Inside SAO, they got married, lived together and had an adopted child, but once they're both out again they're doing pretty pedestrian stuff - holding hands, getting embarrassed when people see them, and making each other lunch. Maybe that's all a bigger deal in Japan than the West, but it's not especially exciting for an anime couple.
The first half of Sword Art Online is at least kind of consistent. But any attempt at doing something interesting with the premise is f--ked into a cocked hat so deliberately and repeatedly over the course of these 25 episodes and I get the idea that everybody on the staff either saw it as "not a problem" or just didn't give a damn.