When it first started airing, the main criticism leveled at Hyouka was that the mysteries didn't really have consequence to them, nor any particular reason or point to them. On the other hand, the (or at least one of the) aspects of the show its proponents lauded most was its characters. What surprises me about this is that no one seemed to see the correlation between these two statements.
|Gratuitous background screen capture for lack of a more relevant image.|
Simply put, Hyouka is a story about its characters. "Now hold on Sato," you might be saying. "This is a new low even for you. Saying any random, obvious garbage so you can publish a post to make up for your horrible negligence? Of course the story is about its characters! You know, like, every story in existence?" And you're right - but only half right. A story always involves its characters, yes. But not everything is about its characters. Take the Indiana Jones series, for instance. Those movies aren't so much about Indy's character, the arcs or changes he goes through (or rather, doesn't), or any kind of epiphanies he has. They're more about the adventure, the spectacle. On the opposite (or rather, a different) side of the spectrum, we have series like Hyouka, which are character stories.
Now, I suppose I should support that claim, but it seems kind of obvious to me. The only constants (i.e. always there) in the series are the characters. The types of mysteries and settings both change all the time, and there isn't really any overarching plot or narrative that holds the episodes together. But the series does have a story to tell, and there's clearly some kind of glue that holds the episodes together. After all, there is a sense of progression, and events happen in a chronological order (which is important, because references to earlier events are fairly common). Since the plot sure isn't doing it, then the only remaining possibility is that the characters do. Indeed, it's seeing how characters (particularly the protagonist Oreki Hotarou) react to and approach things that seems to be the main point of most episodes.
|Also, seeing where the bottoms of their giant anime eyes disappear to.|
But the reason that Hyouka is good, or even Hyoukay, isn't that it has these elements. It's that it has these elements, and it executes them gracefully. This isn't a show that hits you over the head with what it's doing. It's almost impossible to get through the entire first episode without realizing that Hotarou has a crush on Chitanda, but it's very easy to overlook all the little hints that make it apparent. That kind of thing is present throughout the show. You'll have a distinct feeling about something at the end of each episode, but you may not be able to point out exactly why. Typically, whatever hints the show is dropping, your brain is picking up even if you yourself aren't. Because of all this subtlety, the show manages to feel very "real" and underplayed, which makes for a nice change of pace.
Now, for all that, Hyouka isn't perfect. The biggest problem is that sometimes it gets a little too caught up in things other than the characters, namely the mysteries. I kinda like to view this series as a romantic mystery show, like a romcom but instead of comedy it has mystery. The reason I bring this up is that I think it explains the problem nicely; like a romcom that has too much comedy (or too much romance), Hyouka has too much mystery. Now, the series tends to rather cleverly use its mysteries as a catalyst for the character stories, but unfortunately there are times when the mysteries just get in the way.
Still, the good outweighs the bad, and even when bogged down in seemingly-inane mystery solving, Hyouka manages to remain at least somewhat entertaining with it's strong visuals and clear presentation. My point is, though, that you shouldn't think mysteries are all Hyouka has to offer. Certainly, it fits the genre, but it shines far brighter as a character story than anything else, and it shouldn't be mistaken as having no purpose because of that.
Draggle's First Impression of the series from when it first aired covers some of the specifics of that subtlety I'm talking without spoiling too much.
Snippettee wrote a fine piece (also a while back) that briefly touches on the realism of the show that I mentioned, but mostly focuses on the mysteries themselves.