Saturday, 26 September 2015

Episode review: "Made in Manehattan"

Just stop already with this map junk, alright?

It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify the map introduced at the start of this season as anything more than a crutch for the writers. For the second time now, it's been used as an excuse for two characters to go to a specific place and get involved in a specific conflict. It's insufferable, and what doesn't help is that both of the map episodes since the premiere have been terrible. "Made in Manehattan", like "The Lost Treasure of Griffonstone", is completely miserable to sit through. This time around, there's a slightly different reason: Where "Griffonstone" was half-baked and draining, "Manehattan" is consistently infuriating, filled with bad humour and possessing an overblown story filled with unnecessary fat.

In this episode, Rarity and Applejack are sent by the map to a specific community in Manehattan. While there, they discover that Coco Pommel is trying to revive a play that had given the neighbourhood a sense of community, but before that they spend an excessive amount of time simply searching for a problem to solve. This sequence in particular is obnoxious, having no real sense of direction and coasting on a bunch of jokes that just fall flat time and time again. Even at the very beginning of the episode, when the pair are still in Ponyville, the episode falters.

There's a running joke where Twilight gets disappointed that she's not sent on a mission, and it's especially insufferable here, because it's made very clear that she's growing increasingly bored with castle life. It's fun to see her complaining about having read everything in her library, but it's difficult to understand why she can't just go on a vacation. The things she is most excited about in Manehattan are things that wouldn't interfere with Rarity and Applejack's mission, but she has to stay home, because that's what the writers want. I really can't stand what the show is doing with Twilight right now. Most of what made her such a great character previously has been long overdue for an appearance, and having her so confined to the castle without explaining her responsibilities reveals that maybe the writers have no clue what it is that they're doing.

The thing about this episode is that it's just really, really unfunny. Not a single joke lands, and the comedic moments are dragged out for far too long. A considerable number of them are the kind of awkward humour that is followed with an awkward pause, just for added pain. One element, where Applejack has difficulty adjusting to the big city, is neither deep enough nor funny enough to be interesting, and is quickly abandoned soon after its introduction. Thankfully the episode doesn't try to push its humour too often, but a considerable amount of time could be spared if it were cut out entirely. However, if that were the case, we'd be left with the episode's bloated, overblown plot, which if left unattended could have made "Manehattan" every bit as exhausting as "Griffonstone" was.

The second act is basically wasted, used for an ever-escalating series of misfortune that, ultimately, barely has any impact on the main themes and ideas of this episode. The failed dress rehearsal is ultimately meaningless, the montage of Applejack fixing up the old stage is dreary, and the idea that not a single person in this densely-populated community was willing to volunteer is difficult to swallow. There is ultimately a halfway decent reason for that last one, but it's not revealed until the very end of the episode. Until then, it simply appears that the city inhabitants are being selfish, despite their apparent nostalgia for the original play. I'm glad that the episode didn't wind up taking an arrogant stance against big-city folk, but what's here doesn't give a good idea of what the real problem is in the first place, and the theme would be much stronger if it reverberated throughout the whole episode.

That's not to say that the theme is bad, however. Unlike "Griffonstone" and its condescending, poorly-executed lesson, "Manehattan" at least has the good grace to provide what still works as one of the series' better lessons. I really admire the show's increased ability to give messages that could be as meaningful to adults as they are to the target audience. It shows an increase in ambition, and it allows older audiences to like the lessons for reasons aside from thinking that they're good for children to learn. It's unfortunate that the episode did a poor job of building up to it, then. Up until the final act, there's a number of directions that the episode appears to be going in, but that's not one of them. The theme doesn't resonate in the initial shenanigans, nor in the bleak second act. Partially because of the solid theme, the third act is by far the most enjoyable, but it would have been far better attached to a much better story, especially as some of the more frustrating story elements are still present to bring the final quarter down.

At the very least, this is perhaps the closest I've gotten to enjoying Applejack and Rarity's dynamic. There's never a moment where I questioned why Rarity tolerates Applejack, and while the reverse comes dangerously close, it never quite crosses the line. Honestly,  with better humour, this could have been a very similar dynamic to that of Rarity and Rainbow Dash last week, but it just doesn't work here. I wish that the writers would call less attention to Rarity and Applejack's differences, because unless something is made of it, this contrast tends to hurt their dynamic more than it helps. Still, this episode is closer than ever to finding a fully functional dynamic between Applejack and Rarity, and that this episode is so painful to watch isn't that dynamic's fault this time around.

But painful it is. At the start of the season, the concept of the map had potential. It was enigmatic, but clearly relevant in important ways to the main characters. Instead of something great, though, we got this. Compared to last week's episode, "Made in Manehattan" doesn't even move the characters forward in any meaningful way. It's hard to tell what this is all building up to, especially since so much time passes between these episodes, and it's increasingly hard to believe that it will be worth it. At least next week we get away from this tripe.

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