Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Seasons 3)

As we discussed the other day, the unexpected quality programming of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic can be attributed to it's strong emphasis on character. It's cute and likable cast combined with it's abilities to tell simple, light morality tales helped raise it's status from 22 min toy commercial to critical darling. I really can't overstate how much the clear, strong personalities of not only the main cast but many of the ancillary characters made the show what it is, allowing the audience a chance to look at the different sides of these ponies. It sounds silly to those who haven't watched it, and maybe silly to some who have, but even when you're characters are candy colored horses it's possible to make them rounded, exploring multiple sides of their personalities and create fun scenarios for them to play out.

And then they forgot to do that.

Watching season 3 of MLP:FiM is like watching somebody who's going through an identity crisis. At some point in time the show's staff must have gotten this letter saying "MAKE THIS MORE EPIC" because good lord it's trying too hard to do so. With a 13 episode order, this season is the shortest one the show has done yet, and trust me that's a good thing. There must have been something going on behind the scenes. I don't know if it was creative problems, (Creator Lauren Faust had left the show halfway through season 2, so I'm not sure who took over the reigns after that,) a lack of time, pressure from Hasbro, pressure from a very vocal fanbase, or all of the above. The only thing I do know is that this season is definitely the most inconsistent that the show has done to this point.

It doesn't bode well when the first episode of the season, the one that's supposed to welcome back old viewers and perhaps make some new ones, manages to completely ignore everything that made the show so charming in the first place. When talking about the first two seasons I talked about character based comedy vs. plot based comedy. Neither of these options are better then the other, both models are capable of making quality shows. Yet both have very distinctive tones to them, which is why it's hard to interchange the two. Character based are usually focused more on the internal conflicts while plot turns to the exterior for it's conflict. The show always had both kind of conflicts, but it usually focused on the inner more, which is to say that overcoming whatever that was would help them solve the exterior conflict as well.

This changed at the end of season 2, with the big wedding two-parter. The internal conflict had to do with Twilight being afraid her big brother, somebody very close to her, would think less of her once he got with his new bride. Is blood really thicker then water and all that. The external conflict had to do with the bride being an imposter who wants to take over everything by brainwashing Twi's brother. They arn't really tied together very well. In fact, Twi's internal conflict is essentially solved on the discovery of the imposter. It doesn't really come up again to make way for the invasion plotline. Despite the odd tone it still works, if only for the reason that the internal conflict doesn't clash with the plot conflict when it arises. The internal conflict is really pretty low stakes ("My brother may not like me anymore") while the external has huuuuuuuge world threatening stakes.

The season three premiere leans far too much on that external conflict. Another two-parter, we discover that Princess Celestia has a test for Twilight. There's this place called the Crystal Kingdom that disappeared because an evil guy took over. He's a terrible villain with no personality or anything that makes him seem threatening, and that's all you need to know. Anyway, after years and years of being gone it suddenly comes back and Twilight and her friends need to find the MacGuffin before Pony McEvil takes over again. A pretty standard plot for a kids show, okay. Except that's really it. There's no true emotional conflict that is strong enough to truly empathize with the characters and attach us to their situation. Oh sure, there's this whole thing about Twilight being scared she'll fail that test and has to do it alone. Except the show had already used that conceit earlier, albeit with much lower stakes, in season two's Lesson Zero, and even if they hadn't it still isn't a very strong thing to base a character's emotional motivations for 44 minutes. So you have your route TV problem with no emotional attachment. You're just watching another generic kids show.

I know, I know. "But it's for kids! They won't notice that! You're overthinking it!" Well hypothetical strawman I made up, there's a reason I'm breaking it down like this. Over the course of the season the show breaks down into three types of episodes. Those that are actually good, those that really suck, and the ones that are just boring. And sure enough, each of the episodes that suck have a very similar problem to the premiere: too much focus on the external conflict with little to no emotional attachments. For example, take what is possibly the worst episode the show has ever done; "Magic Duel". In this, a minor villain from season one named The Great and Powerful Trixie returns to Ponyville. In her initial appearance she was a boastful magician who ended up being shown up by Twilight. Now she's evil because of some amulet and so she banishes Twilight from the town and she needs to get back in. The problem here is that there are just no emotional stakes. It's all plot and it is a ridiculous one at that. If you are going to escalate that quickly you at least need to provide a satisfying resolution. But no, it doesn't do that either. Twilight tricks Trixie (urgh) by making a fake amulet and then using smoke, mirrors, and body paint to get her friends to supposedly change age and gender, which causes Trixie to rip off her amulet to get Twilight's fake one, causing her to lose all her power. So basically the boastful, megalomaniac Trixie gets shown up by Twilight. It's the same as the original episode, hits the same plot points and everything, except it takes out the emotional layer the original had and made it louder and shinier. It's not like the original episode, called Boast Busters, was anything particularly great either. It was a pretty mediocre episode.  But it still had at least something.

It wasn't all bad though. One episode, called "Sleepless in Ponyville" focused on an overlooked character named Scootoloo, one of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and her idol worship of Rainbow Dash. It was a really strong episode, could have fit in perfectly with any season 1 equivalent. Perhaps even stronger was "Wonderbolts Academy," another Rainbow Dash episode, in which she finally gets to pursue her dream of becoming a Wonderbolt, the Equestria equivalent of the Blue Angels. The character shows real honest to god growth, learning the value of empathy and features a moment where she's willing to give up her dreams because she has decided the leadership and direction of the organization is not what she had in mind. It's a surprisingly, I don't know, adult moment. Just the idea that an authority figure, and moreso then that an institution which has been idolized over the course of two seasons, could be portrayed as not infallible and have a main character stand up to them is pretty heavy. Of course in the end it all works out, but nevertheless it is a moment with serious depth to it, which I don't know if the show ever really had even in it's best years.

Aside from those two standouts, the season on the whole feels broken. At times it moves at a glacial pace while at other times it's rushing through plotpoints way too quickly. When it's not outright bad, it's boring and sometimes puzzling. The songs, a highlight of seasons one and two, are unbearable. Here are real lyrics from a song from the finale;
A true, true friend helps a friend in need 
A friend will be there to help you see 
A true, true friend helps a friend in need 
To see the light that shines from a true, true friend 
It reads like a parody of a Care Bear's song and it doesn't sound any better. Speaking of the finale, it's a hot mess, nothing less then I should have expected from this season. It really does feel like a first draft, something that was scribbled on a notebook during the bus ride to work. The story is that the main character's cutie marks, the tattoos on their butts telling them what they do, get switched around, and Twilight needs to change them back. This is resolved about 8 or 9 minutes before the episode is over. It climaxes far too early, leaving the rest of the episode as a congratulatory exercise. Not only is it really rushed, but at the end Twilight, in reward for being the protagonist of the story, becomes an alicorn (a pony with both wings and a horn). Okay, sure, whatever. But why? Why does she, after all this time, this event that gets solved super quickly be the turning point that allows Princess Celestia to say "okay, now you deserve to be a Princess." Did she learn anything new from this? No, it's the same lesson she learned in the pilot, that friends help friends and that friends are great. This is nothing new or noteworthy, we know this, she knows this, everybody knows this by now. In fact, Twilight hasn't really learned anything since the season two premiere. Especially not in this season, where she isn't even featured a lot. So why is this the event that spurs this? Well because Hasbro wants toys and the show didn't find enough time to telegraph this development.

This season was a mess. For the most part the magic that was there which so endured people to the show in the first place is gone. And if you say "but it's a kids show" well then yeah guess what kids will probably like this well enough. That doesn't mean it's good and it doesn't give it carte blanche to just be so lazy and inconsistent when it used to be such a joy to watch. I'm comparing the show against itself here and for the most part it was a failure. On the Wicker Scale Nic Cage is singing about being a true, true friend, much to everypony's disgust.

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