During the initial brainstorming of potential debates, naturally the topic of fanservice came up and several different ideas spawned off from it. The particular one that came to my mind was this article's title, and obviously some confusion resulted from the overlap between this and the more general "Writing Vs Fanservice". My own take on my own idea is quite nuanced, and so it occurred that a good course of action might be to write up a full post about the nuances implicit and see if that both clears up any confusion that currently isn't bothering anyone due to nobody knowing who I am, and also perhaps make my own stance on the matter clearer in case it ever does proceed to a full debate and I need to choose a side...
The question is a very precise one. Rather than contrasting Writing against Fanservice to determine the appeal of a show, or questioning the nature of fanservice itself, it expressly asks whether a show (or game, or manga, etc.) with good writing, good audio, good presentation; basically a show that does everything right, can be rendered horrible only through poorly done, gratuitous or otherwise bad fanservice.
What led to my idea in particular during a variety of them being thrown around, is an anime adaptation due out next season: Madan no Ō to Vanadis. The Light Novels present a rather standard Fantasy setting, dragons, quasi-Europe and all, and follow one Tigrevurmud Vorn; a young countryside noble who becomes caught up in significant events yadda pretty women yadda yadda it's a harem show. But the story is quite solid, the women are badass and the action often tense. All in all, I'd argue it manages to avoid cliché even as it is so very very tropey. But there is one issue that has me quite paranoid about the anime adaptation of a story I otherwise like; the character designs are like this:
Ladies and Gentlemen, our heroine. [headdesk]
Ellenora Viltara: ex-mercenary, one of the seven Vanadis on the continent, ruler of her own province, bearer of one of the seven Draconic Weapons which choose their own wielders and elevate them to one-person (one-woman, they're all female) armies... Now, you can argue that she serves as a living banner upon the battlefield (and really doesn't need the protection of armour) but... Goddammit... And she's not the worst...
She has an eternal rival in in one of her fellow Vanadis; Ludmira Lurie. Replace "ex-mercenary" above with "Noble and only hereditary Vanadis" and the rest carries over. She and Ellen do not like each other, and one of the things Ellen can use to always score a point is, natch, bust size. Mira being considered rather lacking in the department. She looks like this:
Goddammit. I'm starting to think the Japanese have a rating system for breasts that places a D-cup as average, meaning anything below that gets rounded down to zero!
The story presented in this series is good fantasy, involving prejudice, politics, civil war and deep, dark undercurrents. It's tropey as all hell but a good ride. I just look at those character designs and think of the reaction of people coming to the anime cold and seeing gory battlefields consisting of armoured knights hacking chunks out of each other, then observing the above juxtaposed with that. I do not think good thoughts. I guess time will tell.
That's not to say all fanservice is bad, by any means. Free! would have a hard time existing if it was unable to display flesh, as an example. Another might be Strike Witches, an anime it took me years to finally watch due to the utter lack of female lower-body clothing. Seriously, I would make it as far as Yoshika climbing that tree, scream "Why is she not wearing any pants!" (trousers not being quite so emphatic an exclamation) and go watch something with explosions. But once I persisted the panty-prevalence became background noise within a few episodes, rarely reasserting itself as something to take particular notice of let alone reaching immersion-breaking levels.
Muv Luv: Total Eclipse also managed to include significant levels of fanservice that ceased to be of note once more pressing action was occurring.
Oops, wrong kind of fanservice...
Unfortunately ML:TE could really have used many more such action scenes and much less distracting T&A in between them, meaning it straddles the divide between supporting and disputing the titular question. As big a Muv Luv fan as I am, Total Eclipse was a terrible choice for an anime and did not do the franchise many favours, not least due to the absurd levels of fanservice on display. The Visual Novels play such titillation as is provided by the pilot suits to much better effect, with both the cast and player becoming desensitised to their revealing nature through the course of being given more important things to care about.
Then we come to such shows as Highschool of the Dead, a show I lost interest in predominantly due to the famous Matrix Boobs scene, something I will never be able to take seriously nor anything associated with it. Maybe one day I'll be drunk enough to stop caring... Or from the current season, the members of the collaboration were split over Blade Dance of the Elementalers: some found the fanservice elements crippling to their enjoyment of the show and others were less put off. Though it should be noted that those who supported it were typically readers of the LNs and thus knew of the larger story already, and even then felt the fanservice aspects were a detraction.
So after all that, I'm not certain I'm any closer to an answer. I guess the self-evident response is to say that certainly fanservice can be distracting enough, invasive enough or just stupid enough to render a show unwatchable regardless of other factors, when the same writing could be lauded as a novel, or the animation studios and cast are bywords for quality. But at the same time such aspects as having the entire female cast go only in panties (with shirts and ties) or clad in transparent skin-tight bodysuits, things that on paper would never ever fly, can be minor-to-irrelevant. Perhaps they're the exception to the rule. Maybe there's some magic (triple?) X factor that sometimes allows it to work and other times has it go terribly wrong. Ultimately where the line is drawn is subjective; I'm sure HotD is quite acceptable to some (for whom the fanservice isn't the point) and for others Muv Luv or Strike Witches is quite appalling.
Further discussion is invited to occur in the comments but please keep in mind this isn't about fanservice, it's about fanservice undermining otherwise-existing quality.
Oh, and hi everyone...