Original writeup, dated June 3, 2001, posted after having watched the first season. If you ignore the second, much stranger season, then this still stands. Information on the second season follows.
If there was ever an anime series that seemed produced specifically for (adult) American audiences, this is it.
The Big O has been described by many (and, one suspects, derided by some) as Batman: The Animated Series meets Giant Robo. And it’s true, this does accurately sum up a lot of the show – the art style is just dead on Batman, and the many echoes from that series are obvious. (I do not consider this a bad thing. Batman: The Animated Series is probably the best-written, and certainly the best looking, of all American cartoons produced for television. The producers of Big O worked on some of the animation for Batman.) But after a while, it becomes just as obvious that there is much more to The Big O than is first apparent.
It introduces Roger Smith, a professional negotiator who lives in Paradigm City, a seemingly ordinary place in the not-to-distant future. Emphasis on “seemingly.” Every episode, this place seems just a little stranger than the episode before. It has been forty years since “The Event,” a mysterious occurrence which caused everyone there to lose all their memories. In the time since then, its residents have rediscovered modern conveniences and some technology, enough to resume a civilized existence, but much remains forgotten. Chief among the forgotten things is the means to produce “Megadeuses”, the giant robots of the show. There is a duality here that some consider distracting. At times The Big O seems like two shows, the gritty Batman elements on the ground and the more free-wheeling robot battles towering over the streets. While these fights are cool, especially when Big-O rears back its gigantic piledriver arms to deliver the coup-de-grace, the soul of the show is in the interactions between the characters and the great mysteries hidden in the abandoned buildings and tunnels of Paradigm City.
Roger Smith’s household could very well be stately Wayne Manor, with secret underground warrens to house and maintain his personal megadeus, the eponymous Big O, incredibly capable butler Norman who keeps everything in working order, and his vast array of crime-fighting gadgets. Roger is obviously rich, but the question of just where he got all these things and where he learned to use them, especially the megadeus (they don’t exactly grow on trees in Paradigm City) is never satisfactorily answered. A few questions asked by the characters in the final episode seem to indicate this is by design. Also unlike anything in Batman is the character of R. Dorothy Weinwright, a female android who joins Roger’s household in the second episode. Dorothy is especially interesting because she doesn’t echo the same notes that almost all other anime women, robots or otherwise, tend to sound. She doesn’t pine away after anybody, she doesn’t let the mysterious questions of her past cause her to break down into vulnerable, dewy-eyed moments of female weakness into which the male characters rush to appear strong, she is not a roving cloud of destruction, she is not a total innocent, and she is neither ruthlessly vindictive nor unrealistically forgiving. In short, she is obviously not a fantasy woman of one of the writers. And while she may be a robot, she is not a reprise of Commander Data. She is deadpan, but not always, and sarcastic, but not to excess. She is sometimes condemning of Roger Smith (especially his sleeping habits) and, while far from emotionless, she is not demonstrative with her feelings. Oddly, Dorothy is probably the most complex, human character in a series filled with hidden depths of characterization.
The stories seem episodic at first, but every show contributes to a great, over-reaching plot, with a shard or two chipped off the great sunken iceberg here and there, and at the end, it is difficult to think of a different order the episodes should be in. If you get interested in the show, however, you should be warned that the last episode, while in many ways an immensely satisfying way to end the series, doesn’t answer nearly all (or any!) of the questions you may have, and several things happen that will leave viewers scratching their heads. Don’t expect things to be outright answered, especially concerning Dorothy, but observant viewers will find interesting clues scattered throughout the episode, and the entire series. The Big O was actually not too popular in Japan and failed to be picked up after its initial run of thirteen shows, ending on the first episode of a two-parter. (In the cut that aired on Toonami, the title cards were rigged to remove the “To Be Continued” at the end of the last show.) This last show is, in some ways, a masterpiece of symbolism and mystery, a lot is vaguely alluded to and can just be understood, and I would put it right on up there with one of the better episodes of The Prisoner. In fact, the show owes a great debt to that classic sci-fi series, and despite the Batman/Giant Robo connections, The Prisoner, with its many-layered meanings and inscrutable, mystery-driven plot, is probably the show’s truest ancestor.
It should be noted that this show does not tend to feature, for better or worse, the “anime look,” especially the huge eyes and large quantities of skin of most popular Japanese cartoon series. The show really, really does look a lot like Batman. Even the robots tend to look how you would expect them to look were they in B:TAS, with Big O itself having a pleasantly retro rivet-and-bolt construction. The music is especially pleasing, with several rousing orchestral numbers for the robots that are reprised at least one to an episode, as well as more subdued jazzy, bluesy numbers for the scenes on the street. Word is that the opening theme, however, which was left off the Toonami airings, is a blatant rip off of Flash Gordon, by Queen! (It can be heard during one episode, if you pay attention.)
I am not a big fan of many anime productions, but I was greatly impressed by The Big O, and for a few weeks at least it was the only show I watched religiously. It doesn’t feel the need to lead its viewers around by the nose, and if you blink you will certainly miss an important statement, event or shot. In the long run, when the fads have faded and those series with true, transcendent worth remain, I believe The Big O will be firmly remembered in the second category.
The characters at the end of the first season....
Paradigm City: As much a character as anything else in the show. Resembles New York City. Forty years ago, so the story goes, everyone in the city came down with amnesia. Since then, people have rediscovered basic technology but all around them are remnants of much greater wonders. Such remnants are often called "memories," but there may be other meanings for the word. There is an abandoned subway system and highly technological tunnels not far beneath the surface, of which the citizens are desperately afraid. A small number of androids walk the streets, some of which appearing remarkably like human beings. And there are the megadeuses, huge robots twenty stories tall that usually carry human pilots. When a new megadeus is found (or, rarely, built), by unscrupulous hands the Military Police is powerless to stop the destruction. Note that while many characters refer to Paradigm City as if it were one of many, in fact it is the only city remaining in the world. It's surrounded by deserts, wastes and oceans. The people living outside the city are scattered and not well off. Inside the city, the residents are divided into two social classes, those well-off living inside the large domes that contain much of it, and those living outside, who are typically poorer and not protected by the police. Paradigm's government concerns itself mostly with the inside-dome citizenry. Roger Smith, despite his affluence, lives outside the domes.
Roger Smith: A negotiator working in Paradigm City. He doesn't lack for work. There seems to be some job leakage here, as many times he performs services like private investigation. He pilots "Big-O," a megadeus of unknown origin, when the tremendous forces of the forgotten past rear their heads and threaten the city. He is rich, lives in an old bank building, is a bit eccentric in his demands that the members of his household wear black, and collects hourglasses. He's cool under fire and clean-cut, but a bit lazy. Dorothy's piano playing often wakes him up at the stroke of noon. (The fact that he shares his name with the CEO of General Motors is probably coincidence.) Wondering how he knows how to pilot Big-O, and beginning to have intrusive, disturbing flashbacks. Few people know he pilots Big-O, and the Military Police, including Datsun, certainly don't.
R. Dorothy Weinwright: Roger's android assistant. Rescued by Roger from Beck in the first episode. Was built by Soldano, a wealthy industrialist, using plans produced by Timothy Weinwright, and containing the memories of Weinwright's dead daughter. Dorothy passes for human unless examined closely, but her eyes, unnatural paleness and the whirring noise made by her joints eventually give her away. She has a CD tray under her hair that doubles as a light source. She is sarcastic and deadpan, but seems to be growing fond of Roger. Wakes Roger with raucous piano playing when he oversleeps. She is very strong and quick, and seems to have a natural rapport with androids and megadeuses. Has emotions despite her own claims, but rarely shows them. The "R" in her name is an homage to Issac Asimov.
Norman Berg: Roger's extraordinarily capable butler. A shade shy of Jeeves territory, but arguably more capable then Bruce Wayne's Alfred. Knows his way equally around a kitchen and a motorcycle, and is a good man with a machine-gun. Knows how to repair Big-O, but doesn't know why. He doesn't seem to be as bothered by this as Roger is. Often the show plays Norman for comic relief.
Major/Colonel Dan Datsun: Roger's former commanding officer, back when he was on Paradigm City's Military Police force. Roger left when he became disillusioned with the way Paradigm Group (which owns most of the city and runs the government) used them for their own ends. Datsun stayed with the force, but seems to be becoming more upset with his work these days. Over the first season the chilly waters between Roger and Major Datsun warmed somewhat, but they're still not always friendly towards each other. For his part, Datsun remembers their days together on the force fondly.
"Angel": She's gone under a variety of names, but Angel seems to be the one she prefers when not undercover. She has a pair of suggestive scars on her back. She works as Alex Rosewater's secretary to the end of the first season, but is fired off-screen soon after the beginning of the second season. She and Roger have chemistry, but he doesn't trust her much. Dorothy doesn't like her, seeing her as a rival for Roger's affections. A very important character in the second season.
Beck Gold: A "small-time crook" who gives Roger trouble from time to time. Seems to have memories related to megadeuses. He took control of Dorothy twice in the first season, and tried it again in the second. Beck is another essentially comic character, but he has an important role to play towards the end of the second season.
Schwartzwald: Formerly reporter Michael Seebach, who made it his business to get to the center of the many mysteries surrounding Paradigm City. What he found left him burned beyond recognition and insane. He looks somewhat silly in his trenchcoat and tapered mummy wrap, but he's one of the more dangerous characters in the show. He has real presence. His motives are strange. He seems to hate Roger Smith for taking jobs for Paradigm Group, but both times he is merely a messenger for them, transporting ludicrously large severance packages. He pilots Big Duo in the twelfth episode and very nearly brings an end to Roger and Big-O.
Alex Rosewater: The head of Paradigm Group. He is often seen sitting in his office high up in the Paradigm Building, looking out at the city. In the first season he was a vague sort of villain character, but he didn't really do all that much himself. Paradigm spent a lot of time triggering various situations during the first season which Roger remedied, but for little known purpose. There is a hint at the end of the first season as to what they are: Alex is building Big Fau using parts of megadeuses Roger and Big-O has fought.
Gordon Rosewater: Alex's father, the former head of Paradigm group and the one who built the domes. These days he's a senile tomato farmer on the outskirts of the city, but he has a villa and his own personal dome. He's kindly but always vaguely ominous. You can't shut him up about tomatoes. His name is on the cover of Metropolis, a book Roger finds in episode thirteen, "R-D." Roger doesn't actually meet him until the end of the first season. A lot of what he says is metaphorical in some way of the deeper secrets of the series.
Big Ear: An informant who hangs out in Speakeasy, a bar and billiard hall much frequented by Roger. He gets much of his information from this strange man, always holding a newspaper. He has a hearing aid. You don't see him much in the second season, but in the last episode his voice is the first you hear, and it seems he's been hiding a surprising secret....
Big-O: Big-O himself is the giant robot, or "megadeus" piloted by Roger. He is a "Big," which is a special type of megadeus. Near the end of the first season it becomes evident that he is "alive," and capable of operating on his own, but it seems that many of his functions require a human pilot. When Roger sits in the pilot's seat a message flashes on the round monitor set into his control panel: CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD, YE NOT GUILTY. Other than that he is incapable of speech, but Roger seems to understand him fairly well, as does Dorothy.
And now, a few words on the second season, as of December 17, 2003.
Whoa. The Big-O has finally and irrevocably cast off any criticism that it is merely Batman with giant robots. It no longer makes sense to talk about the show's "on the ground" parts and the "giant robot" parts separately. Both elements have merged, and share equal time with the great mysteries of Paradigm City, culminating in one of "those" endings that poses more questions than it answers. Some people have said it's weirder than the end of Evangelion. I've never seen the end of that so I can't speak for or against that claim, but I can say that it is exquisitely weird far beyond anime normal.
We have now reached the end of the non-spoiler section of this writeup. Read on at your own risk!
To begin with, there are some loose ends tied up from the first season. In fact, things I never expected to be revisited are revealed to have been important to the story. Many references are made to the first thirteen episodes. The purpose of the electric eel monster from "Electric City" is revealed (and why Paradigm Group wanted it), R. Instro has a cameo, and Dorothy's "You're a louse, Roger Smith" line is repeated a couple of times, in greatly different circumstances. Beck shows up again for one of the funniest episodes in the whole series, in "The Greatest Villain," before his character takes a surprising turn in the last three shows. We visit Dorothy's "birthplace" early on, a copper-lined room at the Weinwright estate, and discover the origin of the killer Dorothy-lookalike android from "R-D." Datsun is promoted to Colonel in the Military Police, but doesn't seem to have any more power than he had before. He grows increasingly dissatisfied with the M.P.s, and with working for Paradigm Group, as the story unfolds. He shares a surprisingly touching moment with Angel, and is obviously unsettled when the word comes down from above that she and her accomplices are to be rounded up.
Some things are left hanging, and there are many new mysteries. Early on Angel is fired from Paradigm Group, and about halfway through we discover what we assume at the time is the last word on her – she's an agent for "The Union," a bunch of outsiders born away from Paradigm City seeking memories for their own uses, who has come to love the city itself and searches for memories for her own personal interests more than for her bosses. The Union was behind the murders and destruction in "Winter Night Phantom," and they were also responsible for the Dorothy-like assassin android, but Angel may not have known about those events, and may have cut ties with the Union by that point. But then at the very end of the show we see some very strange and confusing things about her, and she plays a pivotal role in the very last seconds of the series.
Gordon Rosewater, the former major of Paradigm, plays a larger role in the second season story, and is almost killed by agents of Alex Rosewater, his son and current mayor. (Alex seems to be pretty broken up about it, though.) He, and others too, continually refer to the city as a "stage," a comparison that becomes more apt at the season reaches its conclusion. It's finally revealed what Alex Rosewater, the current mayor of the city and head of Paradigm Group, was after during the first season – he was searching for parts to use and the power to activate Big Fau, another Big-class megadeus made from pieces of the robots Big-O defeated. (The Bigs seen in the show are: Big-O, apparently built for land operations, Big Duo, with rocket-engine arms allowing it to fly, and Big Fau, possessing grinding turbine arms suitable for water travel. A fourth, Big Venus, appears at the end of the last episode, but I don't want to give too much away. Yet.) When Roger leaves Big-O during a fight to rescue Dorothy, Alex Rosewater picks up with Big Fau. After destroying the foe Alex starts to get (even more) drunk with power, until the robot he's piloting flashes on its screen "CAST IN THE NAME OF GOD YE NOT," and starts going amok. Alex becomes obsessed with getting the robot to obey him (the next episode he's playing with a remote control toy Big Fau at the dinner table!) and at the end of the season he does some quite despicable things to gain control over it.
In one place Datsun encounters, to his and our surprise, a boy and a girl on the street in front of a movie theater, in a scene very much like his own flashback to the movie he saw with the Union agent from "Winter Night Phantom." The significance of that scene is never revealed to the viewer, but Datsun is oddly protective of the boy.
There's one new character in the show for the second season, the oddly Joker-esque Alan Gabriel, a grinning murderous madman who works for both the Union and for Alex. Alan is a cyborg, part human and part machine, and has wicked spinning blade-hands. He menaces Roger and Dorothy several times during the second season, but eventually comes to an unexpected end right at his moment of triumph.
Another new character is Vera, who is the head of the Union agents in Paradigm City and thus Angel's superior. She gets a lot of airtime in the last episodes and is quite evil, attempting to trigger the destruction of Paradigm City. She's still pretty mysterious right up to the end, but then, there are much bigger mysteries to worry about by that time.
I have posted fairly major spoilers concerning the last episodes here:
Big-O Season Two Ending Spoilers