Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Seasons 1 & 2)

Children's entertainment is graded on a different curve from adult media, for obvious reasons. For parents the main criteria of a "good" kids show is something along the lines of "will my kid like this"? It makes sense that when evaluating a movie or TV show aimed at a very specific demographic the first and foremost characteristic to look out for is at such a basic level. That's why for years people considered kids media to be critic proof. Who cares what some dusty old critic thinks about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Care Bears? It's for kids and, therefore, out of sight and mind for adults.

This dynamic has been changing in recent years. Now, a kids show doesn't have to be seen purely on the most superficial indicator of quality out there. These pieces of entertainment can cross the generational gap, both entertaining children and engaging adults. Movies like the Toy Story trilogy, Wreck-It Ralph, and Coraline are not only blockbusters for the younger set but also beloved by adults. TV shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls show that a kids show doesn't just have to shut up the tykes for half an hour, but can even go deeper then that, blurring the lines between the typical "good vs. evil" struggle present in most mass media and touching onto humanism themes.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is right in between the older and newer views on kids entertainment. It's not a deep show by any means. Pretty much everything it has to say is right there on the surface, a chipper optimistic little cartoon about getting along with your friends. Yet the first two seasons of the show did manage to be engaging to those beyond it's immediate target audience of preschool girls. It does this being cute without being cloying, mixing solid character development with fun, if simple, animation and positive themes for an often overlooked demographic in this kind of new, smarter kids programming; girls.

The show follows unicorn Twilight Sparkle, who begins the series as a socially awkward bookworm. In the pilot episode, she moves from her schooling in the Equestrian capital Canterlot to the small town of Ponyville. (Yeah, get ready for the pony puns cause they only increase from here.) In her new home she meets a group of young ponies like her, including confident farmer Applejack, flashy diva Rarity, prideful atheletic Rainbow Dash, super hyper Pinkie Pie, and shy animal lover Fluttershy. The series follows their adventures together as they learn little morality lessons in their day to day lives, recapped at the end of each episode by a letter back to Princess Celestia, the queen of Equestria who is still called a princess for some reason.

Unlike the original My Little Pony cartoon, a high fantasy adventure series, this show is first and foremost a comedy. What's more, it's a comedy that relies heavily on the characters as the source of the humor, as opposed to the situation. The primary reason for this show's success is in the mane six characters. In my unprofessional opinion, there are two types of TV comedies. There are the ones that rely on the plot to be the main drive of the show, with the focus on how the created character reacts to the situation. Take a show like Seinfeld. It's famous "no hugging, no learning" maxim meant that the characters, as strong as they were, are static. This isn't to put down the show by any means, just that the humor the show mines comes from the outlandishness of George playing Scrabble with a boy in a bubble, or Jerry being forced to wear a puffy shirt. Then there are the comedies where, instead of the situation molding the character, we see how the character affects their surrounding situations. This sounds like it would be the same thing, but there's a subtle difference. Parks and Recreation is a good example of this type of humor. The main thrust of the show's comedy doesn't stem from the situation as much as it does on the character's reaction to their surroundings. Leslie's quest to catch Greg Pikitis in the act of trashing the Parks department is funny because we understand that Leslie is a type-A personality. The way she obsessively chases this kid fits in perfectly with what we know about her character, and it's fun to see how it all plays out. Later a show can subvert our expectations of the character to mine humor, like ultra manly Ron Swanson moonlighting by night as smooth jazz saxophonist Duke Silver. With the heavier focus on character, these shows tend to have their main cast be more dynamic and well rounded. Of course these arn't concrete rules, and the best shows tend to blur the lines between the two. Golden era Simpsons is the first type of show with elements of the second, while a show like Community is the second type of show with elements of the first.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is firmly in the second camp. The plotlines of the show are well worn territory by other similar programming and the morality lessons certainly arn't any more complex then exactly what is said. But it's fun to watch because the characters are so well realized, and quite frankly it's just nice to spend 22 minutes with them. The fact that there are even characters with actual functional personalities is kind of a small miracle, seeing as girls entertainment tends not to have proper characterization be it's strong suit. (See: Bratz, Strawberry Shortcake, the original My Little Pony.) One thing I like in television is when if feels like the world that is created in the show's universe has history to it, and this is something I think MLP:FiM did very well. Right from the pilot each individual character introduction seems well informed, giving you a slice of each pony's personality (can...can an animal have personality?) while still making it clear that what we see isn't the extent of these characters.

Indeed, the first time I watched this show one of the things that struck me was how the show did manage to examine multiple sides of these characters. Creator Lauren Faust, an industry veteran with years of experience on shows like The Powerpuff Girls, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and the upcoming Wander Over Yonder, was interested from the onset to create a show that didn't just push toys or accessories. Obviously Hasbro wants the show to first and foremost be a big fat ad making sure all the little girls know what to ask their parents to get them for Christmas. But just because something starts as purely a commercial matter doesn't mean good things can be made out of this opportunity. Perhaps my favorite instance of the show turning corporate lemons into creative lemonade is in the character Rarity. Rarity is the fashion pony, as can be expected on this type of girls show. She's the one with all the pretty dresses and a new outfit every episode for Hasbro to put a price tag on and send to Wal-Mart. Yet instead of going down the traditional expected route with such a character, making her a spoiled shopaholic, they instead have her be a dressmaker, one who makes and sells all her own clothing. That way, storylines around Rarity can go in more interesting directions then just "BUY BUY BUY!" Often the show uses her as an opportunity to mirror the creative process. It's hard to watch Rarity getting frustrated in all the details and corrections her friends insist she put in her dresses and not imagine some TV writer pouring over network notes. Now, Rarity isn't driven by consumption, but instead by creation. Not only is that a better role model for young impressionable kids, but it makes Rarity into one of the funniest and most interesting ponies on the show.

Even the weaker characters, like the often sidelined and somewhat baseless Applejack, are used pretty well on an episode to episode. This is because of the show's other weapon, snappy underplayed dialogue. Lots of kid shows, and adult shows for that matter, tend to have pretty awkward dialogue, words and phrases that not only sound like nothing any person would ever say but are trying far too hard to be clever or punchy. Even worse is the delivery, with characters oftentimes overselling their jokes in a way that kills the flow of the scene. MLP:FiM largely avoids this problem. For the most part the ponies speak pretty conversationally, as if they are interacting with each other and not playing for an audience at home. Words such as "everypony" and the like are said in a matter that doesn't play up the disreprency from our words. It's just how they talk, it's what everybody says, and it feels consistent and part of their world. The exception to this rule is Pinkie Pie, a living cartoon who oftentimes breaks the forth wall, and as a result she is the most problematic of the group. The first time watching this, especially the first 6 or so episodes, I hated Pinkie Pie. I thought that she broke way too many of the scenes she was in, overpowering everyone around her and derailing so much of the show. As time grew on though I began to like her more and more. Surprisingly, for such a one-note comic relief character, perhaps the best episode of season one was "Party of One", focusing on her neuroses as she is convinced her friends are abandoning her. (It turns out they're throwing her a surprise party. Like I said, not a plot based show.) It takes the character to a surprisingly dark place and manages both to be pretty funny and affecting. Plus having one of the best songs of the whole damn series doesn't hurt.

Speaking of songs, this is another component of the show I really liked, at least in the first two seasons. Musical numbers are a thing a lot of kids shows and movies don't do very well. The basic idea is that if there is a song and everybody sings it then, uh, kids will like it? It's surprisingly proliferate and usually added into children's media clumsily. MLP:FiM manages to use them fairly well, the same way a good musical does. Musical numbers need a point to them, otherwise all it's doing is acting as filler. Usually they are used to move the plot along or express the inner desires of a character that are so intense they literally have to burst into song to express their emotions. The show thankfully opts for the former, so music in the show always has a point to it. They also arn't afraid to hang a lampshade on the singing. When Pinkie Pie first goes into song during the middle of a perilous moment during the pilot, the first reaction from the other characters is a dumbfounded "...tell me she's not." Another nice little moment.

Look, this isn't a deep show. This is not a show that's sneaking anything dirty under the radar. It's not complex, doesn't have hidden depths, and isn't anything more then friends hanging out, sometimes fighting a monster if it's a season finale. The show's success is because of this ease. It just feels good to watch, nice wholesome funny entertainment that both kids and their parents can enjoy. Structurally it's very strong and that's the glue that ultimately holds the show together.

So what happens when this structure is tweaked? We'll get to that later.

On the Wicker Scale, Fluttershy is being comforted by Christopher Lee.

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