There is nothing wrong with a show pandering to an audience -- in fact, most expect it to. A high-stakes psychological murder mystery that ends with the villain apologizing for their crimes and turning themselves in would feel absurd because the audience wants the adrenaline rush finale they expected -- and most shows pander by giving it to them. Anime ultra-classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, did the opposite of pandering to fans in its series finale and received huge backlash for it.
To avoid fiascos like that, a show will almost always pander to the audience in some manner in order to succeed -- even Evangelion did so with End of Evangelion. But series like Angel Beats!, despite having plenty of fans, are often criticized for giving fans exactly what they want in terms of payoff. So why is it that shows are accused of pandering when they make good on their promises?
Emotional shows like Angel Beats! often directly deal with grief and how to move on from it. For many in the English-speaking world, however, the approach can feel jarring due to the simple difference of religion. Japan is primarily a mix of Buddhism and Shintoism, so it makes sense that shows that depict death and grief often take a different approach than those rooted in the worldviews of Christianity and Judaism. Shintoism in particular emphasizes the importance of the current life, which can be seen in many shows that focus on letting go of a loved one, like Anohana.
These anime lay bare concepts rarely explored in Euro-centric media, which tends to focus more on the judgement of those involved with a death and moving past emotions, rather than working through them. However, Angel Beats! is an example of a show that handles death and acceptance in an emotional and careful manner.
Angel Beats! wastes no time in setting up its story: Yuzuru is dropped into an afterlife that looks just like a high school, handed a gun and asked to join the Afterlife Battlefront. Yuzuru joins his classmates who are looking to defy fate by refusing to move on from limbo. This means fighting against the Angel, who is also the student body president. Yuzuru ends up roped into several ridiculous plots to outsmart the Angel as the Afterlife Battlefront fights to stay in their limbo. But, when a member of the Battlefront disappears, Yuzuru realizes that this limbo is not quite what the Battlefront believes it to be -- it's actually a place where wounded souls can heal from their lives. He befriends the Angel and the two begin working to help the members of the Battlefront accept their deaths and move on.
Though the overarching story is sad, there are plenty of funny moments in Angel Beats! and entire episodes filled with gags. The concept of falling into limbo and being handed a gun is ridiculous from the onset, but saying goodbye to each character as they find peace in death feels earned with the time taken to understand them and truly care about if they move on or not.
Angel Beats! never pretends to be anything but what it is, with no attempt to drag people in and then hit them with the truth. It never tries to hide that it's a show where the characters are already dead. In many ways, it is shows like Puella Magi Madoka Magica that are truly manipulative. Angel Beats! has its surprises and its dark turns, but it ultimately stays true to its premise. Meanwhile, series like Puella Magi rope in fans of one genre, only to sucker punch them with a complete about-face.
Angel Beats! is about young people moving on to the next stage of where they should be, having come to accept their past lives and having had a chance to have a normal high school existence. Death is part of a cycle and depicting that is not emotional manipulation. It is a way for viewers to examine a difficult topic and maybe even come to terms with grief in their lives, whether that is death of a loved one or the need to move past a difficult time.
Does Angel Beats! pander? Yes. All anime does. But what Angel Beats! does effectively is establish a premise, make sure viewers know what they're getting into and then deliver a story that deals with death while providing laughter, gags and much more that's unexpected, but not unfitting. It wrenches the audience back and forth between heartbreak and healing, but ultimately delivers something truly special that shows how acceptance and care for others always comes back around. It does not exist to manipulate an audience but to "pander" by giving exactly what it promised.