MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

  Introduction: Why I Like What I Like Next: Friendship Is Magic, part 1

Introduction: Why I Like What I Like

Before I start writing reviews, I must answer this question: Why do I like what I like? By definition, personal opinions differ. But that does not necessarily make them arbitrary or meaningless. They are a function of our interests, desires, priorities, and associations. And even insofar as some things are objectively good, we will differ in how much weight we give to one quality or another. I try to keep this in mind as I evaluate even something as trivial as a television series. As I observe what I like and dislike about the show, and stories in general, I learn more about my own filters, biases, and priorities, and by extension how that can affect aspects of life that are actually important.

Justification

So why does a 39-year-old man with no children of his own care about a show created primarily for kids? I'll simply offer these two bits of wisdom:

Rule #1

There are some things worth dying for, and some things that are just silly to get upset about. The difference between the two is often lost on the Internet. In 1996 I became a card-carrying member of the Nitpicker's Guild, established by author Phil Farrand. Its motto is simply this: "All nitpicking shall be done with light-heartedness and good cheer." I try to follow this rule in my reviews as well as any online discussions I enter into. Please take my highest praises and harshest criticisms of the episodes in that spirit.

Character

I take a character-based approach to fiction. I pay close attention to patterns of thought and behavior, each character's strengths, weaknesses, habits, and eccentricities. My theory of personality is individualized and transformative, defying strict categories. As a result, I like to see a character speak dialogue only he or she would say, and (particularly in a lesson-oriented show like MLP) growing personally over time, whether for better or worse, but also facing the same challenges that are common to us all. Consistency and gradual change are crucial for this to come off well, and that's hard to achieve in a TV series that is created episode by episode by a host of writers. I therefore give high marks to shows like MLP that generally manage to abide by that model.

Related to this, I like stories that place the characters in a situation whose development and resolution are an outworking of the characters' own personalities. I especially enjoy episodes where I realize, "Yes, that's exactly what she would do in that situation," as opposed to contrivances such as having a non-idiot character carry the "idiot ball" or having the day saved by an outside intervention. My big pet peeve is when normally admirable characters get together for a deceptive "scheme" to resolve the plot—a comic cliché that when imposed on the Mane Six always undermines whatever lesson was intended, unless the point of the episode turns out to be not getting together for deceptive schemes. Far better to leave the scheming to the antagonists or to younger characters.

One thing I really like about Friendship Is Magic is that its main characters are realistically drawn in terms of their basic personality, chief desires, virtues, and weaknesses. Allowing for cartoon exaggeration in how their personalities are expressed, there are layers and conflicts within each character that still come together to form a reasonably consistent package, admirable but with potential for growth. Each of the Mane Six is a role model in one respect or another, but on the other hand, each has issues that you wish you could sit them down and counsel them through.

Lesson

I'm a person of strong moral convictions—not that I'm more moral in my behavior than anyone else, but right and wrong are very important to me, and I have some very definite ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Further, as I have begun to write fan fiction, I've discovered that any fiction, whether a short story, a movie, a video game, or whatever, cannot help but convey certain lessons by what it presents positively, negatively, or without comment. I'd just as soon have my stories make the world a better place as opposed to a worse one. How much more is this the case with a show whose subtitle and theme song purport to teach what friendship is. It's therefore natural for me to weigh the moral value of the lessons in a show such as this, and part of the show's appeal to me is that it gets fans and families talking about these sorts of things. I'm glad to say I don't take serious issue with any of the stated points of the episodes, although a couple of them are a bit muddled in the messages they actually demonstrate.

I also understand morality to be grounded in certain realities, some of which are historical in nature. Without getting into much detail, I recognize that some of our "rules" may not apply in the magical land of Equestria, which has its own history and is populated by nonhuman moral agents—lack of clothing being the most obvious example. As a result, I honestly don't have a problem with some things I might find objectionable here. Rather, I take a natural-law approach adapted to the world of MLP as it's been presented on the show. This makes little difference when it comes to the show's lessons on friendship and I don't think it's come up in any of my reviews, but it becomes applicable in certain fan fiction stories that raise questions of moral philosophy or that attempt to transplant issues from our own culture and history into the MLP universe.

As I've looked at other critics' reviews of episodes, one word that curiously pops up repeatedly is "politics." It is one of my pet peeves that just about any issue of cultural significance in our age is thought to be political, and people are expected to line up on either side of the issue based on whether they see themselves as liberal or conservative. It seems that "politics" today means any issue that happens to have been addressed by a politician. Going by the dictionary, politics has to do with who ought to be in charge and what policies they ought to implement. But topics such as gender roles, racism, environmental responsibility, faith vs. science, and other controversial topics are not political, they are moral (and in some cases philosophical), though they may have political implications. And our stance on any given moral issue depends on our standard of morality, our basis for knowing truth, and our understanding of the relevant facts. Our moral stances may determine which political party we vote for and which policies we advocate, but the reverse should not be true; our political allegiances should not determine our morality. Consequently, whether the writers have any political motivation behind the issues they raise in any given episode is something I don't care to know. They're free to have and voice their opinions, of course, as am I; it just won't enter into my reviews. I deal instead with the lessons as they are presented and particularly as they apply to friendship. If I start detecting political propaganda on the show, I'll say so, but to this point I haven't noticed anything truly political to have found its way into MLP.

Immersion and Emotional Resonance

When I read or watch fiction that I expect to be reasonably good, I like to immerse myself in the piece and be carried along emotionally—by the story, dialogue, music, and other elements—to the various moods it intends to convey. In short, I go for emotional resonance. I am of the opinion that stories exist primarily to make ideas felt, and characters exist to be the objects of our deepest feelings. When I find myself excited as the Mane Six enter the gala, horrified by Apple Bloom's inability to stop dancing, shattered by a tearful Fluttershy, or simultaneously beaming and choking up along with Twilight as Celestia praises her, I find that to be a satisfying viewing experience. If instead on first viewing I'm pulled out of the story by an out-of-place moment and end up analyzing the show, trying to figure out what's going on, or wondering if I should skip to the next scene, there's a serious problem.

I can think of three exceptions to the above:

  1. Fiction that's intended to be viewed intellectually, to be analyzed or to be confusing on first viewing and thought through later (such as the film Donnie Darko) has an appeal all its own and for me is a separate kind of experience from "immersive" fiction. Occasionally I've seen stories that are both moving and intellectually intriguing (e.g., the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Frame of Mind"), but even then it's hard to watch the story both ways at once.
  2. I'm fine with breaking away and analyzing a show on repeated viewings. That's really what I'm doing here. As I write these reviews, I'm on my fourth viewing of most of these episodes, although I try to keep my memory of the immersive impact of each episode fresh since that's part of the package.
  3. If I expect fiction to be bad, I treat the flaws as comedy and enjoy most of the moments that are truly appalling. Fortunately, no full episode of MLP falls into this category as of yet, but some of them do have their moments.

Humor

I should also say a word about the show's sense of humor, since most of the episodes are heavy on comedy. This is the most subjective area of emotional response, so "Your mileage may vary" applies more here than anywhere else. I like word play, alliteration and puns in particular, as well as odd analogies and Buffy-speak. Non sequitur humor goes a long way with me. Physical comedy grabs me when it's sudden and over-the-top. Assorted other things that work include deadpan expressions, poetic justice, ironic echoes, and effective use of reveals (Gilligan cuts, "behind the black" moments, etc.). I'm not as keen on overly long gags or on indelicately playing "dignified" characters for laughs. Fourth wall breaks either work or don't on a case-by-case basis; I don't have a personal formula for that yet. I like pop-culture shout-outs when they're subtle and don't disrupt the experience of viewers who don't catch the reference (e.g., by making it the punch-line of a scene). If the characters seem aware that they're giving a shout-out when it doesn't makes sense for them to know about the source material, it's not funny. However, I afford Pinkie Pie a lot of license for this sort of thing, especially since it's been done so well in episodes such as MMMystery on the Friendship Express.

Logic and Suspension of Disbelief

For MLP, logical and technological feasibility carry little weight in my ranking of the episodes. Besides being a show for kids and therefore a simplified presentation of what must "really" be going on in Equestria, the series deals with a world operating on the principles of magic, Rule of Cool, Rule of Funny, and Rule of Cute. The structures and institutions of the society are not thoroughly mapped out, giving the writers a lot of freedom to adapt the fictional world to serve their stories. I'm fine with that. On a more technical show such as TNG-era Star Trek, I expect answers that at least sound like they make sense. For fantasy (such as Star Wars, in contrast with Trek), I let it slide. I make some technical observations along the way, but they will not affect my overall take on an episode. I do care about character continuity, and I would prefer the writers avoid directly contradicting what they've already established earlier on the show. But MLP hasn't run into many problems there so far.

By the way, that doesn't mean I'm not interested in world-building or head canon. Nearly every episode adds a little bit to the universe of the series but ultimately raises more questions. I enjoy drawing clues from the episodes, injecting equal measures of imagination and logic, and crafting my own theories about the history, cosmology, government, and society of Equestria, questions about magic and cutie marks, etc. Come to think of it, lack of a writers' explanation is sort of like lacking a cutie mark: it leaves the subject full of potential, fodder for fan writers where "the possibilities are, like, endless."

Continuity

I am by nature an analyst and a synthesist—I like to break things down into their constituent parts and then put them back together to appreciate the whole. I believe this is why I so enjoy shows whose stories are interconnected and interdependent. For this reason, I appreciated the longer story arcs of Deep Space Nine more than the episodic approach of the original Star Trek, irrespective of the quality of the individual stories. MLP consists largely of stand-alone episodes that could be watched in any order once the viewer is familiar with the show's basic concepts. This makes the "continuity" episodes that much more special to me, whether it's the return of a guest character such as Trixie or Discord, the first season's gala build-up, or the recurring theme of Twilight's insecurities regarding her friends and Princess Celestia. Ongoing character development is also a big deal to me when it's there.

I must stress this is not the same thing as Reference Overdose. I enjoy the occasional subtle shout-out, such as the barking pony from It's About Time showing up in Just for Sidekicks, but I'm more interested in tying the stories themselves together into a larger one than simply throwing memories together into a list, a crowd shot, or a clip show.

Creativity and Adventurous Writing

Like most people, I have watched a lot of television and movies, and probably more animation in my adult life than some would consider healthy. I know the tropes and conventions and can recognize a cookie-cutter plot pretty easily. I'm aware that some writers have taken the same story and adapted it to several disparate series (e.g., the "Kremzeek" story transplanted from He-Man to Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mighty Ducks). So I am unlikely to be satisfied with a paint-by-number episode. I want to be impressed. And since I'm aware of the pressures placed on animators, particularly when merchandise is involved, I really appreciate it when the show's creators manage to impress me. I am also more forgiving when writers take risks with the story and characters, as long as it's apparent they know what they're doing and are not trying to throw in a twist for its own sake or going for shock value.

This, perhaps more than anything else, is what made me a brony. I grew up a fan of G.I. Joe and The Transformers, which outshone other shows of their time by frequently (say, 60-70% of the time) rising above their nature as toy-based cartoon series, though seldom venturing outside their appeal to a target demographic and rarely doing anything edgy, storywise. MLP has impressed me in almost every episode by its resonance, its characters, its handling of lessons, its overarching themes, and its objective technical quality in ways that naturally appeal to all sorts of people. I was not expecting this and was totally floored when I chose to investigate the MLP phenomenon. After the first eight or so episodes, I was sure the series couldn't be this good consistently, so I kept watching to see when it would settle into a mundane routine. It just kept getting better, and by the second season—well, there are just no words!

I have felt compelled to express my appreciation by purchasing the episodes (rather than free downloads) as well as a little bit of merch, by sending a personal thank-you to the show's creator Lauren Faust, and by making some creative contributions of my own—so far six PMVs, three fanfic stories, one comic strip (not a comic strip series; just one actual strip), a handful of drawings and photos, and these reviews. But perhaps most relevant to this commentary, I've been led to trust the creators and embrace an optimism about the future of the series. Time and again they have avoided pitfalls, made the most of opportunities, and been refreshingly clever in their handling of difficulties. They're also highly attuned to their audience (both the target and periphery demographics) and to the characteristics of good storytelling. With their eagerness about season four and the April Fools' prank that revealed their knowledge of what sorts of ideas to avoid, they have my hopes high. Will they still manage to impress? Time will tell, but I am optimistic.

Behind the Scenes

While I don't necessarily consider Lauren Faust's original vision for the show AUTHORITATIVE such that any departure from it marks an episode as bad, I have a great admiration for her creative influence. Besides writing the first three episodes, she designed the main and major supporting cast as well as a lot of season one's animals, hand-picked the artists who designed the background style, and reviewed and approved all artwork for season one. She left the show after the first season but was still credited as a consulting producer in second-season episodes. While Lauren has expressed regret over not being able to see her creation through to the end, the specific reasons for her departure are not public, but she has been gracious in all her statements about the show and its crew and interacts enthusiastically with the fan community. (Her charitable work is also worth a look, by the way.) I am also appreciative of Bonnie Zacherle, who created the original My Little Pony franchise way back in the early 80s.

I am all about authorial intent. The makers of the show do enough interviews, Q&A, Twittering, and haunting of discussion boards that I believe we can usually gather the intent even if it's not obvious from the episodes. But there's a bit of caution here because (1) a TV show is a collaborative effort and (2) authors sometimes want their work to permit various readings by viewers with different experiences. Authorial intent includes the freedom to make your work ambiguous or at least open to more meanings than you have in your own head. I do want to understand the author's intent rather than downgrade an episode based on my misinterpretation. However, I will downgrade an episode if it appears the author has left it open to a bad interpretation that should have been guarded against. The show is, after all, trying to teach moral lessons to children. The show is a testament to the care the writers put into their work, and they have reasons for writing what they have, but we're all guilty of mistakes and oversights, and public work is subject to public evaluation.

Playing Favorites

There's not necessarily any correlation between my favorite characters and my favorite episodes. For example, as a guest character Trixie is a favorite of mine but gets short-changed because Boast Busters is dragged down by a number of issues unrelated to her, and because Magic Duel has her artificially corrupted by the amulet so that we're not dealing with the "real" Trixie until the very end. I'm also a big fan of Spike when he's written well, but sometimes he's not, so several of his featured episodes are near the bottom of my list. For the record, my favorite pony of the Mane Six is Applejack, followed closely by Fluttershy, and Rarity has recently moved into the third-place spot. But Rainbow, Twilight, and Pinkie are also good characters who get a number of excellent stories.

I also try to keep in mind the show's intended focus on its main characters. My favorite character of all is Roseluck, who has less than two minutes of screen time, followed by Princess Luna, who only has the spotlight in a handful of episodes. There are a couple other very minor characters I greatly enjoy. But I don't expect or even request that they be given their own episodes, because that's simply not how the show is structured. I'm content to see the vast array of fan creativity in which these characters can have their time in the spotlight.

Looking to the Future

What do I want to see from the remainder of this series? I'll leave the specifics to the writers, but there are two things I hope will continue. One is the complexity of the characters. I want the show to avoid what TV Tropes calls Flanderization. Flanderization happens when a complex character loses her layers as a series progresses. Their most obvious traits overtake their personality and everything else falls away. Applejack and Twilight Sparkle are fairly simple characters whose personalities nevertheless have lots of implications that are fun to play around with. But Fluttershy, Pinkie, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity are wonderfully complex characters. If we ever see them reduced to one-dimensional concepts, e.g. Pinkie as mere comic relief, Rarity as spoiled socialite, the show will have lost its lustre.

My other major hope for the show is that it will cling to its subtitle. MLP is not a phenomenon because it features a magical world of candy-colored ponies. Instead, it uses a girl-friendly premise and high quality storytelling values to teach lessons about friendship that help viewers of all ages maintain healthy relationships and even deal with unhealthy ones. In that way, the show helps make the world a better place and isn't just there for entertainment. It may be tempting to start just exploring the world and its characters, leaving the moral lessons behind, but they are the foundation of the series' significance.


  Introduction: Why I Like What I Like Next: Friendship Is Magic, part 1