I may have spoken too soon. I’m not sure I’d say at this moment that Mawaru-Penguindrum is better than Madoka Magica, but it’s competitive enough to make it a close call.
Madoka Magica is the more accessible of the two. Even if you don’t get the Buddhist references it can still be appreciated as a straight-forward sci-fi story–rather dark but with an inspiring ending.
Mawaru-Penguindrum is more challenging. Deeply surreal, it leaves the viewer constantly guessing whether what we are seeing is really happening or just symbolic. Yet if you are willing to put up with that sort of stuff, the show can be very rewarding.
The show that I am most tempted to compare Penguindrum to is Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both are laden with symbolism. Both deal it dark themes of alienation and child abuse. Both raise the question of whether this world’s flaws are so great that they can only be dealt with by destroying it, though they seem to arrive at opposite conclusions.
But of the two, Penguindrum seems a better-crafted story, a complex integrated machine in which all the parts fit together perfectly. By comparison Evangelion seems like a hodge-podge of ideas thrown together, clomping around like the Junk Doll in Clannad and finally subjecting us to an extended pompous lecture. Evangelion relies heavily on shocking us with gore, while Penguindrum shows the confident restraint of a more skillful storyteller.
I don’t know if Penguindrum will attract the sort of cult-like following that developed around Evangelion, but perhaps it deserves to.
Those interested in Penguindrum would do well to check out 8thSin’s translator notes (though only after watching the episodes in question.)