"I'm Haruhi Suzumiya, from East Junior High. First off, I'm not interested in ordinary people. But, if any of you are aliens, time-travelers, or espers, please come see me. That is all!"
Has any anime character ever introduced themselves so simply and so effectively as Haruhi Suzumiya? Right off the bat, right out the gate, before we know a single other thing about the character for certain, we get this: if you're normal she doesn't care about you, if you're some kind of supernatural entity you're worth her time. Maybe.
If you're of a certain age, and were interested in anime in even a minor way in 2006 or for several years afterward, there is a good chance you heard that opening proclamation, and not a small one that it electrified you. I've never met anyone who identified with Kyon--Haruhi's cool-headed, snarky, down-to-earth foil--over Haruhi herself, at least not at first. Haruhi's introduction to her class is both in-universe and out, a thrown gauntlet. Really, it's almost a sneer, a vocalized disdain for the willfully conformant. You are either on the side of people who have outgrown psychic powers and UFO sightings, or you are--if not an actual alien yourself--seeking those very things 24/7. There is no room in this worldview for fence-sitting, for splitting your time, for compromise. It ultimately doesn't matter that this was first penned by light novelist Nagaru Tanigawa, that it was originally a few words longer (the anime adaptation and most subsequent quotings leave out a bit about "sliders"), and that it would launch a media empire, Haruhi's class introduction is snappy and anti-authoritarian enough to serve as the weeaboo "F--k The Police".
Before that Haruhi media empire, there was this, a bratty maybe-goddess blind to her own powers, demanding that the world either hand itself over to her and be grateful for the opportunity, or to simply not bother.
The older you get, the less appealing this kind of drunk charisma becomes. Haruhi is very much a doer, not a thinker, and the genuinely crazy shit she pulls in the first few episodes alone--hijacking another school club's meeting room, strongarming not one but three people into her personal Mystery Inc., dressing up in a playboy bunny outfit to pass out fliers for recruitment--wouldn't fly in a real high school, much less anywhere else in the real world. Honestly some of it (using Mikuru as her own personal dress-up doll, chiefly) is pretty deplorable! That Haruhi manages to be so damnably charming on rewatches a decade later is a testament to the sheer skill the character was written with, and the overflowing force of personality that Aya Hirano (and yes: dub actress Wendee Lee too) bring to the role. It's enough to make the viewer feel like they're the one being inducted into the SOS Brigade. Haruhi will either bring you back to your gleeful highschool otaku phase, where the biggest cares in the world were whether Light or Lelouch was the bigger mastermind, or, if you never had one, will conjure it out of thin air for you. Haruhi herself may be fictional, but the pure id part of our minds that she appeals to--the desire to rip up the mundane and dreary everyday and expose something shining and weird and wonderful underneath--is very real. To this day, Haruhi Suzumiya remains enticing for this very reason, slip in an episode--any episode, in broadcast or chronological order, as you please--and the church bells that open "Boken Desho Desho?" will transport you, if you let them, to a simpler time.
Of course, the question with these things is always "but does it hold up?" I have always been of the opinion that that is the wrong question to ask, and in this particular case I think that's doubly true. A more interesting question is that of "does Haruhi Suzumiya have anything to offer a new viewer in 2017 who did not grow up with it in 2006?" Which is both a bit of a harder question (the answer to "does it hold up" is an emphatic "yes") and a more relevant one. The issue of what this anime even is has not gotten easier to answer over the years, especially as as time's gone on its constituent genres (you could probably give someone a very rough idea of what Haruhi was by describing it as "a slice of life mixed with a supernatural mystery") have drifted even further apart than they were in 2006. Haruhi freely mixes comedy (both character humor and brazen slapstick), supernatural elements, the occasional action sequence, romantic undertones, and more. All of this with a mid-decade anime style that, despite being very much of its time, still looks pretty nice today, especially when compared to some of its contemporaries.
Haruhi wouldn't be much if it were just the title character of course. The full ensemble cast work together like the cogs of a well-oiled machine. Kyon is nothing without Haruhi to bounce off of, Yuki's Rei-pastische would be meaningless without not one but two other girls--both quite emotional in their own ways--for contrast, Mikuru's whining and general moe-ness would be annoying without Kyon's grounded, levelheaded sensibility, and so on. Each member of the SOS Brigade contrasts and highlights the others (as a side note, this is why discussions of who the best character is have always struck me as rather meaningless).
This is highlighted best in my opinion by the series' original season 1 finale (though it's only the sixth chronological episode), the sixth and final part of the titular "Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" sub-arc. Haruhi unconsciously transports herself and Kyon (just herself and Kyon) to a closed, alternate-dimension version of their school. This is painted by the other characters who briefly show up (Itsuki and, via text, Yuki) as being plainly apocalyptic. If Haruhi uses her powers to create a new world, the logic goes, it will quite likely destroy the old one, where the rest of the SOS Brigade still resides. This is the sort of thing that it's very easy to oversell, but Haruhi has enough restraint that despite the stakes it doesn't fully go off the rails. Haruhi goes from terrified (a rarity for her) to ecstatic as she realizes that something genuinely supernatural is happening. Kyon pulls her back to reality by reminding her--to a masterful soundtrack of wailing, warbling choral voices--of their friends, and more or less confesses to her. All of the literal events are effectively undone by the episode's end, but the character development remains, and sees Haruhi further come out of her shell.
The first season has other highlights as well, the genuinely suspensful "Remote Island Syndrome" arc, Ryoko's reveal as an alien like Yuki in the fourth part of the "Melancholy" arc and her subsequent confrontation with Yuki (undeniably: the series' best pure action scene), the pseudo-iyashikei of "Someday In The Rain", and the climax of Haruhi's emotional development in "Live Alive", where she fronts the fictional band ENOZ (played by members of the very real ZONE) as part of the school's cultural festival, it must here be noted that "God Knows" and "Lost My Music" are two of the best songs to ever make it into an anime. Season 2, as an aside, is its own beast, and deserves a more fine-toothed comb discussion than this very broad review can give it.
So the show holds up and still has things to offer to anime viewers today, but what of its influence? Indeed, for a show that was so hugely popular it seems strange that there weren't more knockoffs. The truth of course, is that there were plenty of them, it's just that most never made it out of the light novel format and as such their influence on wider anime fandom is much diminished both domestically and in the west. Even today, something like Zeroth Maria has more than one strand of Haruhi's DNA laced into it. There Is No Haruhi In My Classroom, a series of allegedly rather cynical "response novels" should be mentioned here as well, though they've never been made available in English and thus remain obscure in the west. There is of course too, the Monogatari franchise, which has always seemed to me not unlike Haruhi squared. Made even stranger and more stylized, with almost all of the grounding elements removed (this is not to say that either is superior, but at the end of the day they are very different experiences). There is of course the Haruhi light novels themselves, which continue (at a snail's pace), and have gotten strange and arcane in their own way, as subsequent books sidelined the title character and introduced a much-expanded cast of characters who have never seen the TV screen (the anti-SOS Brigade in particular come to mind here), alternate timelines and other general esoterica. There is The Vanishing of Nagato Yuki-chan, a spinoff manga (and later anime) that removed the supernatural elements in favor of a still charming but undeniably much more normal romantic comedy, with Haruhi herself again pushed to the sidelines. There is Haruhiism, the faux-religion that sometimes nears real religion in the fanaticism of some "practitioners". There is the lingering hope, now so rote to express that it's become a punchline, of a season 3, of a reboot, of something.
There is so much, so much more that could be discussed about The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a show that grew out of the bounds of its medium altogether and became a pop-cultural phenomenon. But I would like, if I may, to break the fourth wall a bit, and pose a thought experiment to you--the reader. Haruhi fanfiction is practically a medium in its own right at this point, and this then surely is a question many have pondered, but, if we assume that Haruhi herself is 16 at the series' beginning in 2006 (as would be the norm for a Japanese senior high student) and we pretend that time were to pass within the show's universe at the same rate it does in ours, she would be 27 now. What, do you think, is a 27 year old Haruhi up to?
I ask the question not just as an excuse for headcanonning (though that's always a bit of fun) but because I think the answer reflects a bit on the person giving it, Haruhi comes from a time before recombining popcultural influences into something new was the norm, and despite the walking wink and nudge that is the character of Kyon, it really is the title character the gives the show it's heart. Haruhi isn't quite one of a kind, but she's close.
And where in this strange mixed-up world we live in, is there a place for Haruhi Suzumiya?
Maybe nowhere, but, as I alluded to near this now far too long review's beginning, I think Haruhi (and Haruhi) appeal to a sort of inner adventure geek. The conspiracy theorist, the young adult novel binge-reader, the teenager in all of us, so maybe not nowhere, but in some small way, everywhere.