Stars Align is available on Hulu and on Funimation’s website.
Everybody loves a comeback story. Someone gets up and fights back when they’re down and against the ropes? That’s inspiring. There’s good reason why basically every sports story uses it to some degree or another.
But to get back up again, you have to get knocked down first.
And the protagonists of Stars Align are some of the most knocked-down, drug-out losers I’ve seen in a story in quite some time.
And, even worse, they manage to go downhill from there.
The very first order of business for the series’ extended cast: get blindsided by Maki, the series’ chosen protagonist. The setup: everybody else has been part of the school’s floundering soft tennis team for quite some time. Maki, on the other hand, was strong-armed into joining yesterday because the team captain thought he had good reflexes. Maki hasn’t played a game of tennis before in his life, and has never met any of these guys before. He’s an outsider starting from absolute ground level.
And he immediately proceeds to treat the rest of the team like the inept amateurs that they are.
Granted, he’s right, and that eventually ends up being the kick they need. Their club is at risk of dissolution, and not a one of the old guard seems to care. They all know that they’re woefully inadequate, both as players and as people. It’s strikes home so hard that the team spends the next two episodes trying to convince Maki to quit – often physically – in retaliation.
And, do you know what? They’re almost right in their own way. Maki acts out of some deeply haughty presumptuousness, blindly stomping all over what’s left of their little corner of the world. Regardless of his results or his position as the series’ lead, Maki blasts past “tough-love new coach” and straight into antagonistic territory, taking authority he hasn't earned and beating everyone around him over the head with it.
He's a tyrant.
Which is doubly uncomfortable considering his circumstances.
To cut a story and its spoilers short, he’s subject to his own set of abuses at home, constantly made to feel powerless and less-than. His home is literally and figuratively invaded, making him a victim of power. The horrible irony in his treatment of his new “team” is so thuddingly apparent that one would have to do mental cartwheels to deny that one isn't informed by the other.
So, what? Does Maki get a pass just because his form of dominance produces positive results in the end? Obviously not, no more than his teammates get a pass for their collective retaliation against him. Or for objectively settling into bully-flunky pairs for doubles matches. Or for “hazing” each other to the point of welting.
It’s just a situation where everyone is terrible, and each is lashing out because of the horrible-ness of the others. They are the very definition of a failure spiral.
And even when they leave that spiral, they never really stop failing.
Exhibit A: The Practice Match
Amusingly for the mid-season climax, this a complete and utter lost cause before it ever gets off the ground. The protagonists have just barely gotten out of their own funk, and the school that they're slated against is properly good. As in, regional-champions good. Any realistic scenario should show our “underdog” tennis team getting absolutely torn apart.
…which they do, and which the show is refreshingly honest about. The characters expect to lose, and everything about the music, framing, and overall atmosphere plays into that. Rather than a tense but dishonest front, the practice matches actually present some of the first genuinely upbeat moments of the show, where the players aren't at each other's throats, but are genuinely cooperating to try and eek out one measly point each.
They're all still failures.
They've just learned to fail graciously.
It's such a reversal of what we've come to expect from sports stories; our team always comes from behind, pulls out a win, goes further than anybody expects. Stars Align only expects its characters to just lose by marginally less than a total skunk, and as a viewer I completely bought in. That's no mean feat.
Rooting your favorite to win is easy. Rooting for them to only mostly suck is a tough needle to thread.
Interestingly, Stars Align is in its own downturn right now; an original plan for 24 episodes was chopped in half with little apparent notice. There's no second season secured, and no source material for viewers to fall back on. It’s just… unfinished. The series was never about plucky underdogs, so it wouldn’t even be on-theme if series rose from the ashes come July with more episodes to finish the story.
But the team has had their uptick. They haven't found a permanent catharsis yet, but really, who among us has? For all their efforts, they're at least standing on their own feet now instead of laid out across the floor.
And with the right framing, that's all you have to ask.