As a fan of philosophy, I tend to enjoy shows that take the time to discuss their philosophical or ethical questions, such as Psycho-Pass or Evangelion. However, it seems clear that writers can go overboard with this, and that sometimes these discussions can seem inappropriate or even pretentious. Do you think there’s a specific pattern to when discussions like this are appropriate, and when they start to become pretentious?
I’m gonna go a little off-topic from your specific question here, since I feel that given your examples, we shouldn’t just be talking about philosophical or ethical discussions specifically (which I think need to be employed very carefully), and should just be talking about themes generally, since in my opinion those discussions are only appropriate when they’re reflective of a show’s themes. But I do come back around!
As far as thematic depth in general goes, I think it’s almost always beneficial – there’s a time and place for pure entertainment, but I think well-articulated themes generally enrich a story, and basically give the narrative itself a kind of distinct personality. Strong themes lend purpose to every element of a story, and make everything hang together in a satisfying way. They’re also generally how shows actually impart meaning, and I think fiction’s ability to impart meaning through character, world, and storytelling is one of its’ absolutest greatest and most laudable powers. Obviously you don’t want a show to be fully didactic, and just dedicated to parroting some worldview – if you’re using fiction to do this, you might as well just be writing an essay (this is one of the worst ways to insert philosophical or ethical questions – not exploring their tangible consequences, and instead just inserting characters with Correct and Incorrect viewpoints to have talk to each other). But if you can actually imbue a story with a powerful thematic throughline that enriches and lends a central meaning to the struggles of the characters and twists of the narrative, it almost always results in a richer and more resonant work – not just a collection of events, but a conversation or a passionate statement. A thematically rich story can raise issues in ways that actually make you feel their implications – it can bring the passion and intimacy of the personal to the broadest and most universal of topics.
I think Evangelion does this brilliantly, not because it’s complicated, but because it’s thorough and careful. Saying “honest human connection is our greatest and most desperate challenge” is one thing – articulating the paths Shinji, Asuka, and Misato take towards fighting, acknowledging, and ultimately moving beyond (or not moving beyond) that challenge casts that statement in the extremely personal yet world-shaking context it deserves. This isn’t a direct result of its’ actual conversations on the topic – Evangelion succeeds because it always keeps the focus on its central theme, which is reflected in the character arcs, the individual conflicts, and the show’s overarching narrative. In the end, its’ focus on the very personal actually becomes the universal when Shinji’s decision whether or not to accept that challenge of imperfect human connection actually dictates humanity’s future. That is successful thematic integration.
Which brings us to unsuccessful thematic integration. Themes can be inappropriate when they’re not actually central to a show’s goals, but it is also perfectly reasonable for shows to have minor themes that weave with their major ones (Gargantia pulls the neat trick of weaving around four related but not identical themes into a set of linked questions). Themes can also just not be supported by the text – when they’re talked about, but not actually articulated in a compelling way, they offer nothing to the story and only reveal a lack of focus or actual dedication to those ideas. Themes/ideas/philosophical discussions become flawed or pretentious when they’re raised as important but not actually followed through. This can happen in a wide variety of ways: when a show raises an ethical question, but avoids actually exploring its’ consequences (like giving the protagonist a difficult choice to make, but rendering that choice irrelevant through the introduction of a deus ex machina), when a show engages in a lengthy discussion of a philosophical point or outside work but doesn’t actually link that discussion to the consequences of the show’s own character arcs and narrative, etc. It is remarkably easy to screw up a story’s thematics, because when a show is trying to express a central theme, virtually every element of that show reflects on that theme in some way, for better or for worse. Good themes don’t have to actually be raised by the characters in conversation – they express themselves passively through the narrative and characters. Sometimes actually discussing the ideas presented is necessary, but that should accompany the show’s narrative exploration of these ideas, not just be thrown on top as flavor. So when it comes specifically to philosophical or ethical discussions, I’d say they’re generally appropriate when the show’s narrative and characters actually reflects on those ideas in a meaningful way. And if you think those ideas would be better represented by an essay, then just write an essay – the strengths of a narrative medium are plot and characters, so if your discussions aren’t just supplementing the ideas presented through those strengths, you’re probably working in the wrong medium.
Granted, many people throw around “pretentious” to describe pretty much anything with some thematic substance or subtlety, but I’d say it’s only actually appropriate to describe shows that poke ideas or concepts without actually engaging them.