During the Prohibition in Chicago and New York, a motley collection of eccentric characters cross paths. Some are immortals; some are would-be immortals seeking the Universal Panacea. Some are mafioso. One is a woman bomb freak with a missing eye; one is a rumrunner with a serious anxiety disorder and a strong sense of personal honor. One is a crazy sadist. One is a hardcore solipsist. One is a homunculus with a heart of gold. One is mute woman assassin with a heart of steel. One is a deeply broken child. One is a demon. And two are the purest trickster figures I've seen in modern fiction, and so delightful I smile whenever they cross the stage.
Their paths cross on the Flying Pussyfoot, a railway train barreling between Chicago and New York. And you'd best not upset the conductor too much....
Baccano! is absolutely, positively a delight. If you're not an anime fan, this would not be a bad place to start: the main series is thirteen half-hour episodes (there are three more episodes that serve as a kind of coda, but the main plot is done in the first thirteen), that tell a tightly-woven and very well-designed story. That means that you can finish it in a handful of days, a week at most, if you want. And at risk of annoying the subtitle purists, I can say that the dub is phenomenally well done, so if you object to reading subtitles this could still work very well for you. (If you are an anime fan, I would recommend it without reservation.)
The story weaves between the backstory of 1930, the Flying Pussyfoot plot of 1931, and the aftermath of 1932. The many plot threads weave in and out and under and over one another, braiding and winding together and tightening all the time, until at Episode 13 all the plot threads knot together in a truly satisfying ending. It's written more like a short story than a novel, and more like a novel than an American TV series: it knows when it's meant to end, and few words or scenes are extraneous to that. (Which isn't to say that there aren't scenes that contribute mostly to character development. There are. But 'character' and 'plot' aren't separate things in Baccano!: character contributes to plot, and plot to character. Nothing is wasted.)
The writing is laugh-out-loud funny in places, and tensely dramatic in places. Like J. Michael Straczynski's writing in Babylon 5, the funny and tense alternate to the benefit of each. And the story is heavily character-based, which suits me right down to the ground, as I read for character first and setting second (the Prohibition setting is rich and well-developed). Furthermore, there are a wide variety of female characters (the warm-hearted bomb freak, the cold-hearted assassin, the serious assistant, the cheerful trickster, the passive masochist, the mother, the daughter, the sister, the hero), who fill such a variety of roles that it doesn't feel that any are being pigeonholed—and all of whom keep their clothes on.
(It also has a pair who are pure tricksters. And I love them because they're not too-cool-for-school, Loki-in-leather-pants tricksters: they're random elements who look like absolute nutbar idiots most of the time, and yet who set in motion most of the major plot threads. And they have good hearts, and yet having good hearts doesn't prevent them from causing incredible inconvenience to everyone around them....)
I love this series. Did I mention that? While I wait for new Naruto discs to arrive, I may very well rewatch it—and I just finished watching it for the first time on Saturday.
Anyway. I've gushed enough. If any of you are familiar with Baccano! and interested in more spoilery discussion, let me know.
I should note that the series does have some bloody/gory bits. I am a squeamish person, and there were parts I had to look away from. But the show doesn't surprise you: you can generally tell when you need to look away, and when you can look back. There are no icky-out-of-nowhere scenes, nor any pop-up-and-scare-you bits.
EDIT: mswyrr found that it's available on Hulu, here. So you don't even need to buy or rent it, if you're interested.