Take the teenaged cast and episodic nature of the old "Archie" comics, strain them through some "Comedy of Manners" novels (I'm thinking of Kushner's Swordspoint and Privilege of the Sword, and Wrede and Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecelia, but their common ancestors, the works of Jane Austen, would probably be even better), add a dash of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and a generous helping of the showiest, wooziest aspects of modern Japanese life. Beat until very, very light and fluffy ... and maybe you'd come up with Ouran High School Host Club.
I actually enjoyed this quite a lot, which is extremely strange, because it has very little in common with the other manga I really love.
The set-up is that Haruhi Fujioka, a poor scholarship student at ritzy, exclusive Ouran High, wanders into the all-male Host Club one day while looking for a quiet place to study. Her clothing makes her look like a boy, and when she accidentally breaks an $80,000 vase (waiting to be auctioned off for a fundraiser), the club members decide that "he'll" have to work off the debt by attracting patrons (almost always girls). Here I finally get to apply the tag line that I felt bad about using with sweet, earnest Fruits Basket: "And hijinks ensue." Because this series, like the Host Club itself, seeks only to amuse.
Plot? What plot? Ouran don't need no stinkin' plot. Basically, there's a series of silly setups. Haruhi and the boys - glamorous but profoundly melodramatic and love-happy "King" Tamaki, vice-prez and saturnine financial whiz Kyoya, flamboyantly gay twins Hikaru and Kaoru, very short and sweetly spacy "Hunny" (who's always toting a plush bunny), and tall, silent Mori (who's there to keep track of Hunny and the bunny) - are tossed into them, and proceed to bounce off of each other and whatever additional elements show up. See the Host Club entertain and later dispose of the bitchy Queen Bee who has it in for Haruhi! See them straighten out the mutually misunderstood lovers! See them celebrate the traditional cherry blossom festival! Snarky dialog and cheerfully over-the-top flourishes ("Pointless flood of roses!" notes a helpful bit of marginalia, as Tamaki suddenly gains a background of blossoms) keep things rolling along whenever the slight plot structure threatens to give way.
Running jokes also help to keep things from falling apart entirely. One of the most persistent involves an invented family where Tamaki is the father, Kyoya the mother, the twins their sons, and Haruhi their daughter. "At the age of 17, I have three kids?" Kyoya muses at one point - "Where has my youth gone?" (Hunny and Mori are not part of this nuclear meltdown family - they get stuck with being the couple next door.) Mori's silence and devotion to Hunny cause him to play the faithful dog in several episodes: Lassie as a 6-foot 2-inch high school senior, complete with the ability to track his master by scent. The boys' fascination with Haruhi's plebeian lifestyle (mostly as they imagine it, fueled by movie and TV dramas) is another never-ending source of gags, leading the boys to experiment with instant coffee and packaged ramen, among other exotic delights.
It's weird, but I even find some bits of this gagfest touching. The motherless Haruhi, whose father works as a bartender, has had precious little pampering in her life. The Host Club boys, as shallow and clueless as they are, nevertheless mean well, and end up assisting her in all sorts of ways. For example, in one episode, a discussion of the best swimsuit to suit Haruhi's nearly non-existent figure reveals (in some of those helpful little notes) that she's wearing a sports bra, "just in case," that was supplied by the club. There's something simultaneously warped and gallant about that, and it appeals to me.
So, as odd as it may be, this series is becoming something of a favorite - even though it makes a really weird companion to Samurai Deeper Kyo and Saiyuki.