Saturday, 21 May 2016

Episode review: "The Saddle Row Review"

One of the strongest points of My Little Pony's sixth season is its willingness to experiment and evolve. Season 5, for example, had Rarity finally follow through with her high ambitions, officially entering the Canterlot fashion scene by opening a boutique. This season, she did the same with Manehattan, although that opening was largely in the background, as "The Gift of the Maud Pie" was focused more on the family dynamic between Pinkie and Maud Pie. In "The Saddle Row Review," alternatively titled "Saddle Row & Rec," we see more about the opening of her Manehattan store, in an episode focused on comedy with strong stylistic deviations from the rest of the series.

I have to say, I never expected My Little Pony to become The Office.

Yes, "The Saddle Row Review" is a mockumentary sitcom, much like Parks and Recreation. Structurally, it's nothing like prior episodes, the primary story being recounted through an interview held with Rarity and her friends over the boutique opening. That story itself is framed by the bookend of Rarity reading the interview later. This nonlinear approach to storytelling is a new approach for the show, and it makes for a very entertaining gimmick. The structure, which places the mane six in a variety of situations as they attempt to prepare the boutique for opening, is also reminiscent of a sitcom, mostly abandoning the high-speed hijinks of the show's funniest episodes for relatively grounded, character-driven humour. 

Thankfully for an episode which is almost entirely reliant on it, the humour hits fairly consistently. Not every joke or comedic setpiece lands, but the pacing is madcap enough that, with some annoying exceptions, the weaker jokes are rarely dwelt upon, and although the tone takes some adjusting to, it contributes to keeping the episode punchy. Each of the mane six is solid, their unique quirks shining through as they try to find reasonable approaches to the problems that opening the boutique presents. Pinkie Pie resisting the allure of the dance club and Twilight geeking out over organizing the merchandise are the most delightful, but none of the six fall flat at all. Also present is the daughter of Rarity's landlord, Plaid Stripes, who is unfortunately the weak link of the episode. Rarity employs her under pressure from her father, and Plaid proceeds to implement a variety of bad ideas. This is all fine and good, but none of those ideas are especially funny, and the character is mostly irritating. 

What sets the episode apart even more than its structure, though, is its sense of modernity. Rarity needs to deal with her landlord, her boutique is right underneath a dance club, and the urban setting lends itself to all sorts of small touches that make the show feel contemporary in a way that it's never really attempted to before. If this comes at the expense of some of the show's simple charm, then at least it provides some of the most entertaining scenes in the show's history, such as the simple fact of Pinkie Pie being removed by security from a dance club. If anything, this move away from simplicity contributes heavily to how fresh the episode feels, and the urban texture of "The Saddle Row Review" is consistently delightful. 

Where this style is more limiting, however, is in the visuals. The vast majority of the episode takes place in close ups in interior spaces, and the sitcom style is a double-edged sword in this regard. Sitcoms aren't really known for their visual splendour, and by replicating the style of one, "The Saddle Row Review" comes across as a little cramped in comparison to the previous episode. There's plenty of attention to detail, but the actual cinematography more often than not takes attention away from the exquisitely-painted backgrounds. It's certainly authentic in its replication of the mockumentary sitcoms it's clearly trying to replicate, but it still makes this the least visually appealing episode of the season, and the very different visual perspective of the interview scenes is a little jarring. Although the facial expressions are consistently charming, character movement is generally subdued in keeping with the style. Where the episode succeeds visually is in little bits of detail like Pinkie Pie's plates slowly piling up, and in visual call-backs and references to previous episodes and other media. 

With a major story-driven boutique opening episode already accomplished in season 5's "Canterlot Boutique," and most of season 6 so far being dedicated to character development, "The Saddle Row Review" has earned itself some leeway to focus entirely on humour. While the episode is lightweight in terms of themes and character depth, it still contains narrative momentum, displaying the grand opening of Rarity's entry into the big-city Manehattan fashion scene. Underneath the humour, the episode does attempt to communicate a lesson. All of Rarity's friends attempt to handle their tasks like Rarity would, which only results in them making no progress. It's when they realize that Rarity trusted them to do their own thing that they're able to make the boutique ready to open. Even by the standards of this show, that theme is mostly in the background, but it is present throughout and built up to, and trusting your friends to trust you is a pretty solid moral. 

It's not very common for My Little Pony to use an all-encompassing gimmick like "The Saddle Row Review" does, but this stylistic deviation has paid off in spades. As the season's first purely comedic episode, adopting the look and feel of a mockumentary sitcom was a great idea, and places the show's focus on its most important element: the characters. Now, this isn't any great showcase of character depth, but it does demonstrate each of the main six at their most entertaining, the relatively down-to-earth format focusing on personality over hijinks and action. "The Saddle Row Review" is lightweight, sure, and its unexpected stylistic deviation may take a little getting used to, but it's as wildly inventive as the show has ever been and, frankly, it's just a lot of fun. 

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