Feel-good TV: Carole & Tuesday

Louis Calvert

Feel-good TV: Carole & Tuesday
August 6, 2020 Louis Calvert

In this time of stress and uncertainty it’s a welcome breath of fresh air to come across something that’s not only wholeheartedly feel-good, but also reflects many of the issues of our world. 

Netflix’s Carole & Tuesday has been out for a little while (since August 2019), but it’s easy to scroll past it. It’s anime, so unless you’re already really into that medium it’s probably not going to grab you right away. Added to that, it’s about two teenage indie musicians trying to make it big on Mars in the late 21st century — not necessarily the most immediately compelling concept for most viewers.

However, what’s hard to get across in that little Netflix thumbnail is that Carole & Tuesday is just lovely. It’s charming, heartwarming, and sincere. The series was commissioned for anime alumni Studio Bones’ 20th anniversary, and the 10th anniversary of record label FlyingDog — a label that specialises in animation-related music and games. Despite being set in 2071 on Mars, it’s not at all overtly sci-fi and could be told anywhere. The fact that it’s on Mars, in the future, allows directors Motonobu Hori and Shinichirō Watanabe to play with some interesting ideas around both present-day analogous politics and the concept of creation and ownership in a time where AI is much more advanced.

Watanabe might be a familiar name to some. His previous anime, the 1998 series Cowboy Bebop, is widely considered a ‘must watch’ anime, winning several awards, gaining cult status, and ever-growing mainstream popularity. In 2014 Watanabe created Space Dandy, which has an altogether different tone to his previous work and leans into a more surreal irreverence which takes a bit of getting used to. Carole & Tuesday is — inexplicably — apparently set in the same fictional universe, despite being poles apart from Watanabe’s prior work in its themes, animation style, and… Well, everything really. 

The two-part (24 episode) series starts by introducing Tuesday Simmons, a naive rich-kid daughter of a senator. She runs away from home to Alba City, a large metropolitan centre on a partially-terraformed Mars, to pursue her passion for music — something she wasn’t allowed to do at home. She almost immediately runs into streetwise busker Carole Stanley. The pair hit it off instantly and Carole takes Tuesday under her wing, giving her a place to stay while she finds her feet in the big city. Together they almost accidentally write their first song and realise that, as a duo, they’ve got something special, and they can help each other realise their dreams. 

After performing the song live to an (accidental) audience of a couple of security guards, they attract the notice of Roddy, a sound-mixer technician-type, who in turn introduces them to Gus, a washed-up ex-musician and almost alcoholic manager who has lost hope in the music industry he loved since AI started writing all the songs.

Carole and Tuesday’s hand-written music, combined with their natural exuberance and charm, helps them through some difficult times and wins them supporters and allies, eventually winning a place on Mars’ Brightest, a televised talent show in the mould of X-Factor.

If you’re into music then Carole and Tuesday’s journey from passionate, broke artists with part-time jobs to playing Cydonia Festival, Mars’ version of Glastonbury, will speak to you. It’s been said by some reviewers that Carole & Tuesday is an anime for indie musicians and fans; and it’s true that it seems to reflect the struggles of real artists as they navigate the pitfalls and pleasures of money, pressure, writer’s block, creative differences, rivalries, and the battle against the algorithm. However, that definition is reductive. Carole & Tuesday just as much appeals to anyone who’s ever wanted to be more than they are, anyone who’s ever had a friend who supports them, and anyone who’s ever struggled to find themselves in a complex world.

The show doesn’t overtly lean into the fact that it’s set in the future on Mars. Instead, the sci-fi elements are woven naturally into the plotlines that shape Carole and Tuesday’s lives. There are some wonderful background elements that help to flesh out the setting, from the robot bartenders to Carole’s uniwheel not-quite-hoverboard. Mixed in with that are a lot of present-day and near-future technologies: we see heavy use of what are recognisable as smartphones, and the ‘go to’ social media platform on Mars seems to be Instagram (we can only speculate over the fate of Facebook and Twitter). There’s a sprinkling of sentient robots in there too, and some interesting side-plots that relate to the ubiquitous cameras, surveillance, and cyber-stalking. At one point, the facility that seems to be integral to terraforming Mars is damaged and the temperature plummets, creating a temporary freezing winter.

As a narrative counterpoint to Carole and Tuesday’s ‘natural’ music style we’re also introduced to child star Angela Carpenter, who wants to break out of her restrictive roles and become a pop star. While Carole and Tuesday are doing the grassroots, low-budget, indie thing, Angela uses her high profile to get signed immediately to world-renowned music producer Tao. There’s a catch though: he only works with AI, and Angela will be his “puppet” — she’ll sing what the computer creates, how it specifies, and will have no creative freedom. In return, Tao is confident Angela will become the next singing sensation. 

Far from portraying Angela as a hapless victim, she is shown as an intelligent, motivated, and driven young woman who is willing to accept these compromises in order to get what she wants. Tao for his part comes across as entirely emotionless, verging on robotic. The plotline comes to fruition near the end of the series in a quite unexpected way.

There are two major threads that weave through Carole & Tuesday that shape the duo’s overall journey. The first and most immediately apparent is the public’s appetite for new music. While the juxtaposition between the music created by AI and that created by Carole and Tuesday exists through the whole show, Watanabe cleverly never goes down the obvious route of passing judgement on which is ‘better’. It’s apparent that both forms are good. Angela’s AI created music isn’t shown to be inferior, and neither are the people who like it shown to be somehow deficient. It’s simply portrayed as the currently in-vogue way to make music. Carole and Tuesday’s ‘homemade’ music is certainly the star of the show, but it’s made clear that it’s considered to be highly unusual, and that’s part of what captures people’s attention — not just that of the public, but also that of other people in the industry. 

Combined with the young pair’s earnest love of music and supportive attitude — both towards each other and for other artists — Watanabe manages to put Carole and Tuesday front and centre without diminishing the other characters. This really comes through in part two, when Angela goes through quite a lot of personal turmoil. Despite her positioning as ‘the rival’, the series gives her character enough screen time to do justice to several delicate scenes that depict addiction, depression, and loss. We all know that the music industry can be a difficult environment, particularly for young stars, and Angela’s journey is one that feels genuine.

The second major thread is one of political machinations that threaten civil liberties. Particularly relevant over the past few years, the plot revolves around an ambitious senator making a run for the presidency. In this case, it’s Tuesday’s mother Valerie Simmons, and her campaign causes Tuesday a lot of anguish as the series progresses. Valerie doesn’t appear to be modelled after any one specific person in real life, but her attitude and general demeanour will be sadly familiar to many.

After struggling to gain traction in the polls, she adjusts her campaign to target refugees who came to Mars from Earth. In this future, Earth isn’t doing well — and many people, Carole included, lived in refugee camps before being moved to Mars as part of a resettlement project. When the series begins there doesn’t seem to be any pronounced resentment towards these Earth-born immigrants, but as Valerie stokes the fires of public indignation there’s a groundswell of anti-immigrant feeling amongst the populace. It’s a slow build, but before the end we see how the police are given expanded powers to detain and eventually deport ‘potential terrorists’; which in this case includes Earth-born musician Ezekiel, who is accused of spreading anti-martian sentiments through his music. While not subtle, this particular thread has been handled quite delicately. Watanabe doesn’t hammer home the point, but it’s absolutely there and is an important part of how Carole & Tuesday speaks to its viewers.

Despite these forays into darker themes, overall Carole & Tuesday maintains a positive and up-beat charm. It’s difficult to come away from any particular episode — or the series as a whole — without feeling a little happier. Without spoiling the end, ultimately the final message of the last episode, and therefore the message of the entire series, is one of positivity and the potential for change. It is a message demonstrated time and again through almost every character as they all individually go through rough times, or start in difficult places; but, by working together and allowing good people into their lives, everyone ends up in a place at least a little better. As Carole and Tuesday sing:

“Where you gonna turn when
Your whole world is burning?
This is the beginning
Don’t give up”