Thursday, 23 July 2015

Season 5 midway reflections

With My Little Pony's fifth season having been cut in half, and the second half having no known release date yet, it seems appropriate to reflect on the season so far.

Much more so than season 4, I went into season 5 with high hopes. Perhaps not high expectations, but after S4 ended on a high note, I had reason to hope for something more exciting than the stale bore that was the fourth season. And, in a way, I was right: season 5 is certainly stranger and more ambitious than the previous, with relatively few episodes that feel completely inconsequential and a bit more of a will to experiment. In S5, we get a number of things that S4 wouldn't dream of doing, such as a stab at political commentary, a trip to a previously unknown civilization, and numerous attempts at emotional maturity. The latter of which in particular was sorely missed in season 4, but while it's easy to praise S5 for trying, that effort only makes the show's ever-present fear of taking risks all the more obvious. In episodes like "Castle Sweet Castle" and "Tanks for the Memories", a deep idea is brought up-feelings of discomfort after life changes and the potential loss of a pet, respectively-that could make for a very impressive episode if handled correctly, but which is ultimately ignored for the sake of hijinks. It's a disappointing trend that unfortunately only got worse from there, culminating in the abysmal "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?", an episode that doesn't even reveal its emotional depth until the last three minutes, electing instead for action and... well, action.

There are some episodes that do succeed, like "Bloom and Gloom" and "Make New Friends but Keep Discord", but this only serves to make the weaker episodes all the more frustrating. So many episodes in the season bring up some room for a potential character arc or story arc, but few of these even go anywhere. There's no sense of progression; no feeling that the show is actually going anywhere. The plot device which appeared in "The Cutie Map" only appears in one other episode over the entire first half of the season, which brings up the possibility that it might have merely been introduced as a crutch when the writers don't have an excuse. Much like in the previous season, what appears to be a running plot is introduced in the pilot, only to be relegated to specific episodes without any real connection or sense of forward movement. In fact, the season lacks focus in general, with very little connection between most of the episodes and many plots that could have occurred at almost any point in the series. There's many hints at character development, but without any key focus, the character development isn't really followed through with. The result is an even greater feeling of stagnation than before. 

What makes all this especially galling is that I've recently begun watching Steven Universe, a show which is currently running laps around My Little Pony and making me even more frustrated with all that's not being done. Sure, MLP skews a tad younger, but even if it doesn't reach the extensive complexity that I've heard Steven Universe achieves in its latter episodes, surely it can at least be as good as the earlier episodes. That a show with 11-minute episodes does so much more than a show with 24-minute episodes is frustrating to the extreme, and My Little Pony could be doing so much more than it is. And for a brief, brief period, it seemed like it was finally starting to do so. "Party Pooped" and "Amending Fences" aired back-to-back, and though both did have their issues, they're also two of the season's most ambitious episodes, and most importantly, they both took actual risks. And then "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?" happened, again demonstrating a fear of actually taking a risk and focusing on its deeper ideas, and bringing the season back to square one.  

As said, this has been an odd season, but increasingly that strangeness hasn't been for the better. One annoying result has been an increase in reference humour, and though some of these are well-executed scene homages that work just as well without understanding the reference, but others are so utterly blatant as to actively detract from the episode. The real identifying feature of season 5, though, are the weird faces. There are numerous exaggerated faces, on a level that usually isn't seen in MLP, and while it's ultimately harmless it sometimes detracts from the art style's charm. A bigger issue is the increasingly over-the-top nature of many episodes. While most of S4 so far hasn't gone too far, starting with "Slice of Life" there's been a number of bizarre episodes that go considerably over-the-top. "Slice of Life" can definitely get away with it, due to being a special episode that's mostly separate from the season proper, but when "Party Pooped" also went for an over-the-top approach, it began to seem like a direction that the show was going in, and I don't think that direction would be sustainable. I really do hope that the second half of the season is a little more sedate. 

Season 4 was a really stale season as well, but another thing setting season 5 apart is that a particularly large number of episodes just aren't very good. Even compared to other seasons, which were always at least a little shaky, it's hard to guarantee that the next episode will even be any good. All of the above might have been less of a problem if the vast majority of episodes were at least passable, but this time around, too many are subpar, and it only makes all the season's issues much, much more obvious. There's so much potential in season 5, too, but thus far not much of it has been capitalized on. Instead, what's there is another disappointing season. 

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