In 2016, when Kamen Rider Ghost was just winding down, and images for the next season of the franchise started rolling in, I have to admit my heart sank. It’s not that I was in love with Ghost, but at the very least, I enjoyed the costumes. Then came Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, and for the next few months, a bottle of bleach sat quietly at my side, just waiting to taste the soft, mushy flesh of my eyes. Just in case. How I was taken, kicking and screaming, from a place of cringing apathy to a state of heightened excitement is a wonder to me even now. Had I misjudged this show at face value? Well, yes and no.

It’s true that I grew to love Ex-Aid, this crazed, sugar-high color-eruption of a show about a young hospital intern turned video game-themed superhero. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a rough road getting there. Like Oregon Trail-rough.

It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the game gimmick. Or even the doctors. But gaming doctors? At this point, I’m convinced Toei Company’s doing this on purpose just to screw with us. Or maybe it’s the writers they’re screwing with, as I can imagine taking such strangely disconnected ideas and tossing them into a blender would be a pretty heavy challenge. And luckily, I feel like things come together quite nicely in the end. But, for me, it had to get worse before it got better.

Truthfully, I wasn’t blown away by the characters at first glance. The story also seemed to be on fast-forward in the beginning, as there was an avalanche of toys they clearly had to drop on our heads before anyone could get a word in edgewise, about who they were or what they wanted, besides the usual generic stuff we hear all the time from characters in these shows. “I want to make everyone smile!” “I work alone!” “I don’t care about civilians!” “I’m unbelievably clumsy with no depth perception of any kind!”

What sets Ex-Aid apart from its mildly stale counterparts is its ability to take those basic caricatures and develop them into full-bodied, well-used characters that you really come to appreciate over the course of its story. Admittedly, I had little faith that they’d arrive at such a place, given how so many other tokusatsu titles had left me cold in this department. Starting simple, and ending that way too. Having a million characters, capitalizing on maybe three of them, and even when the others are showcased, it’s for some completely random reason that just doesn’t impress. Who knew giving people stuff to do would make them more interesting?!

Emu was definitely getting on my last nerve, hijacking Kamen Rider Kuuga‘s smile-preservation program with half the swag and a third of the appeal. But then this goofy doctor-in-training had to go and get himself a backstory, connecting him to the show’s best villain, intertwining their destinies in a plot I looked forward to watching unfold. What I had assumed was just a fun stylistic choice about Emu’s personality changing during combat situations was revealed to be an actual separate person influencing his actions, setting up shop within him. Parad, the grinning computer program brought to life from what I could only guess, based on that outfit, was some kind of pajama party sim, simultaneously jumped to the head of the pack as the most intriguing villain. His duality with Emu, as he slowly grapples with his evolution into a complete being, makes him a worthy antagonist to root both for and against, depending on the day.

It’s a curiosity how all this madness holds up: A video game company working in tandem with a hospital whose doctors transform into superheroes that treat patients suffering from “game illness” by fighting monsters that represent their ailment. Each monster, like the Kamen Riders that face them, taking inspiration from a different kind of game on the market today. In their first big movie, our heroes face the most dreaded of all supervillains: Dr. Pac-Man! HOW IS THIS SHOW EVEN REAL?!

That’s not even the end to the insanity. Company owner Dan Kuroto was the Riders’ first main enemy. A smooth-talking, ultra-confident businessman who had a habit of pulling the most painfully arch “evil genius” faces you’ve ever seen. I kept saying to myself that this guy couldn’t be taken seriously, because he reads more like some kind of ridiculous parody than an actual villain in a real modern show. And then he dies and is resurrected into Neo Dan Kuroto, and they dial up his wacko-meter to over 9000, and strangely enough… I love it. What had at first seemed like accidental parody had now just leapfrogged beyond actual parody into an entirely new category. Constantly shouting about his own brilliance and insisting that people call him by the increasingly long, pretentious new names he periodically gives himself. I should hate this laughing idiot, but God (Dan Kuroto) help me, I just can’t!

What’s amazing to me is that even he, with his impossibly silly personality, gets more cool stuff to do. Aside from rocking two of the most awesome costumes in the whole damn show as Dangerous Zombie Kamen Rider Genm, both his parents serve a hefty part in his story. While his father Masamune took the usual evil daddy approach, returning from a stint in prison to resume control of the family business around Kuroto’s death, something much more unexpected comes out about his mother. Turns out (actual name) Poppy Pipopapo wasn’t just a shrill anime cosplayer on speed who somehow became a nurse at a functioning hospital. Her program was, in fact, based upon Kuroto’s late mother. Wow, this show loves messing with preconceptions, doesn’t it?

I wish I could say her development went as swimmingly as some of the others, but I do have to take issue with some things here. See, Poppy eventually becomes a Kamen Rider in her own right. This alone makes her imminently more useful than a lot of “Rider Girls” in the past, who on some unfortunate occasions are basically there just to look cute and maybe get civilians to safety when the lead hero takes the stage. Except… that’s pretty much what Kamen Rider Poppy does anyway, transformed or not. She doesn’t get episodes. She doesn’t get fights. She gets to be a nurse. Not a real nurse, just the boyish fantasy of one. When she does fight as part of a group, it’s like the camera forgets to look at her. And she’s not the only one.

Nico and Taiga are a dynamic duo of comically simmering angst, and they’ve got banter for days. At their best, they compliment each other and offer a lot of great drama as they dodge death around every corner together. But Taiga’s the unlicensed doctor Rider and Nico’s the “patient” he can’t seem to get rid of (nor does he really want to). But then, something amazing happens. Nico herself gets to suit up, upgrading our list of heroines from one to two. That’s gotta be some kind of record for Kamen Rider, right? Well, sadly, Nico the Ride Player gets about as much to do in battle as Poppy the, uh… Poppy.

It’s awesome that we get to see them transform, and to throw some kicks like the Boys Club they’re surrounded by, and I want to see this trend continue. But damn is it frustrating to watch them constantly rev up for action only to be stopped by some dude right when it’s about to get good. Quit doing that, toku! You have 475932 awesome men packed into this sausage factory. Two ladies blowing stuff up from time to time won’t kill you!

Speaking of death. Dan Masamune may be something of a basic bitch when it comes to bad guy personalities, but I do like some of his plans. Enticing the world to buy his company’s insane products by claiming that people who have died can actually be resurrected as data. It’s rare when a toku show can create a dilemma that doesn’t have such an obvious black-and-white solution. It’s usually just “bad guy wants power, good guys fight em” and on we go. Here, he’s presenting an interesting point, that a lot of people would have actually listened to. He’s in the rare category of villains who can successfully manipulate people into taking personal action that knowingly works against their own interests. If you could rip yourself or someone you love back from the jaws of death, would you? And in a world where repairing injuries or curing ailments is as simple as rewriting some code, what use is there for a hospital, or a doctor, or a pop star nurse? The show actually kinda-sorta starts linking up its two disparate themes and I think I love it.

Not as much as Hiiro apparently loves Saki, but we never really get the time to see it for ourselves because… I guess the show thinks that would be too boring. Ultimately, I think Hiiro’s journey may be the weakest of the four main Riders. Despite the fact that both his girlfriend and his father are in countless episodes, we never really get to know either of them well aside from the few tropes that define them. We’re left to just assume everything he simply must be feeling about them because there’s not much to show. As a character, Hiiro’s most alive when his rigid pomposity is being challenged by the other Riders, Taiga, Emu, and Kiriya. The latter of which has a surprising death that sees the surviving heroes shaken and fazed.

I call Kiriya’s death surprising, but we can’t pretend it’s the first time Kamen Rider has done this in recent years. Taking a likable character away from us just when things were getting crazy, establishing that this show means business. In fact, Ex-Aid has quite a bit in common with the show I’m thinking of. Kamen Rider Gaim had a similarly uncertain start for me, with a wacky hodgepodge of gimmicks that I didn’t know would make for as great a series as it turned out to be – an excellent story with great characters and big revelations both devastating and exhilarating. In this way, the two shows are alike. Ex-Aid may not be a perfect match for Gaim’s sheer, out-of-nowhere magnificence, but I can feel it channeling one of my faves and I’m totally here for it.

Of course, Kiriya doesn’t stay dead. He’s back on our screens faster than you can say “Bandai Co”, plotting to take out the show’s big bad with the other heroes. Only this time, he’ll transform into an actual superhero, instead of his original “Rider” form. What possessed them to initially make this guy turn into a talking bike, to be hopped onto and ridden by other characters, I do not know. I only know that I’m happy to see him get to fight more with actual legs and arms this time, as the final act of the story commences.

Our heroes spend many episodes taking on the awesomely-designed Kamen Rider Cronus, eventually recruiting the equally awesome Kamen Rider Para-DX when it becomes clear that Masamune is crazier than his son and should be taken down in a hurry. A few thousand power-ups and plot twists down the line, Emu gets his Soul Glo form and defeats Cronus’ seemingly unbeatable time-freeze power, and a whole mess of stuff happens in-between. What’s crazy about this is that they never once seem to stop to help a random civilian do some unrelated, mundane thing, like many Riders tend to do, even at this stage. In fact, Ex-Aid does away with those exhausting subplots much more quickly than it had appeared they would. Even when the doctors do have a specific patient to treat, the show wisely factors that person into the show’s overall narrative. Important figures from the past, persons of intrigue regarding Genm Corp and the key to unraveling Masamune’s game plan. This is how you do civilian guest stars, people!

After the loss of Parad’s partner in crime, Graphite, the fate of Masamune is all but set. When the Riders realize the only way to defeat his new CGI upgrade is to revert themselves back to Fug Suits, they band together for one last team Rider Kick and save the world. But not before both Parad and Poppy, two Bugsters who’ve grown beyond the expectations of their programming, sacrifice themselves for the cause. In the end, it’s a battle between the Riders in their original guises and Masamune to decide the future of this crazy world.

I’ve always liked when the final battle strips off all the wild form changes and funny gadgets hanging off the hero and just showcases the classic suit one last time, in an all-out brawl. No frills, all thrills. It happens early in the episode, allowing the characters a moment to breathe after the villain’s ultimate demise, so no one’s rushing to get off the screen before the credits run out. Except, of course, for Poppy, who obviously wasn’t going to stay dead. She hops right out of the hospital monitor like nothing happened, about thirty seconds before Parad comes back too. One big, happy, resurrected family.

Oh, Ex-Aid.

For all the things that drove me crazy about this show, I’m glad to have stuck it out and been rewarded so much for it. The sad thing is that a good number of other recent shows in the tokusatsu subgenre just don’t seem half as committed to rewarding your investment like this one did. It took its sweet time getting there, but it built upon its own foundation amazingly well and entertained the hell out of me.

Just let your soul glow, Emu!

Next: Kamen Rider Build Episode 1