For most television series or films we can usually see similarities with other ones, or at least recognise the genre into which they fit. As time goes on, it’s more and more difficult for writers to come up with an idea that hasn’t been done before, and that’s fine. There’s a lot of value in putting a new spin on an old idea. Cells at Work! is different, because I have never seen anything even remotely like it before, and would be hard put to even say what genre it belongs to. It is remarkably clever and inventive.
The series takes place inside a human body, and the characters are all cells, working to keep the body alive and healthy. The main two characters are a red blood cell, who is very much a rookie at the start of the series and has to deliver oxygen and carbon dioxide around the body, and a white blood cell, who fights invading pathogens. One thing you have to get past and just roll with is that this is obviously a highly metaphorical representation of cells in the body, showing them as humans and the pathogens as monsters. The cells live in their own little apartment blocks and behave like human workers, stopping to have a cup of coffee, or whatever, so you have to learn to accept that incongruity and the sight of an invading enemy bleeding when killed. We frequently see White Blood Cell splattered with blood from a pathogen he has killed, which of course doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so it’s best not to think about it at all, or it will spoil your enjoyment of this highly entertaining series. Other than that kind of oddness, which is really necessary to make the concept work at all, the consensus of opinion from those who understand this kind of thing is that the representation of how the body works in this series is highly accurate and educational. There is a narrator who explains each type of cell as we go along, so I could see this actually working really well as an educational tool in schools. If each science lesson had started with an episode of Cells at Work! when I was at school, with the teacher then going on to talk about the topic of each episode, I might have learnt a bit more than I did!
Most episodes in the first season deal with some kind of a pathogen invasion, and the animators have great fun coming up with weird and wonderful alien-like creations to represent the various bacteria and viruses. We never get to see the human whose body these cells inhabit, which left me rather curious about that, especially as he or she seems to have the worst possible luck, suffering from every imaginable problem, from minor to serious injuries, food poisoning, pollen allergy, heat stroke and influenza. The series never shies away from life-threatening problems, even going so far as to have an episode where cancer cells start to take over the body. The first season ends with a two parter about the body suffering from a serious head injury and almost dying, and it is very frightening and dramatic, but elsewhere this tends to be a fun series with bizarre-looking invaders and an army of different heroic immune cells. We certainly learn a lot about the workings of the immune system, with episodes focussing on killer, helper, regulatory and naïve T cells, memory cells, an eosinophil and several others I had never heard of before. At first I thought this was going to be a series that reinforces gender stereotypes, with the main characters being a female red blood cell who delivers packages and a male white blood cell who fights enemies, but things do balance out very well with some of the most effective and… well, really cool immune cells represented by female characters. Apart from the main two characters, my favourites were the platelets, who are so cute; they are represented as little children because platelets are small cells, and are shown as construction and repair workers, essential when damage has been done to the body.
The first season of Cells at Work! has 13 episodes of approximately 25 minutes each, plus an OVA episode about the common cold. The series is available in the UK on Blu-ray, and includes the OVA episode. A cautionary note to parents: the Blu-ray is rated PG, but there is a huge amount of blood and violence in this series. A second season was shown earlier this year, and also a spin-off series which is apparently darker in tone, both of which I have yet to watch, but will cover in future articles. RP