I thought it was over. Season 5's pitiful excuse for a running storyline, the cutie map is nothing more than a poor excuse to get specific pairs of ponies in certain locations. The show has never questioned it, never explained it, and never explored it in any detail, and worse, it brings with it a deeply predictable formula which rarely provides any development for the main characters or delves into its settings beyond mere regional flavours. I hated it, and the fact that it has been brought back for another season of its horrors fills me with nothing short of dread.
And yet, even though the map is a plague on this show, each of its episodes is better than the last. "Spice Up Your Life," while even more formulaic than season 5's map episodes, is also much more charming than any of them, and lovely in its own right.
When Twilight and Starlight resurrect the briefly-dormant Cutie Map, Rarity and Pinkie Pie are summoned to the nearby city of Canterlot to solve an unknown friendship problem. While there, Pinkie discovers that she doesn't care for the subtle flavours of Canterlot's high-rated restaurants, and leads Rarity by scent to a struggling Indian food place, managed by chef Saffron Masala and her father, Coriander Cumin. Coriander is frustrated with the restaurant's lack of business, which Rarity accredits to the restaurant's lack of a rating, which itself is derived from food critic Zesty Gourmand's very specific preferences.
Rarity and Pinkie immediately offer to prepare the restaurant to be reviewed. Pinkie, joined by Saffron, attempts to court guests, while Rarity, knowing Zesty's preferences, works with Coriander to ensure that the restaurant looks exactly like other high-rated restaurants. Pinkie and Saffron aren't so pleased with this, selling the restaurant based on its unique identity, which Saffron is very passionate about. From there, the episode proceeds very predictably. The showcase goes poorly, Zesty declines to rate the restaurant, and not long afterwards, Rarity and Pinkie realize they were approaching the problem incorrectly, and decide to use Rarity's fame as a platform to promote the restaurant.
With the episode following the formula of these map episodes to the letter, it needs to provide subtle nuances in order to stand out. Unfortunately, although the Rarity/Pinkie dynamic is still surprisingly amicable and entertaining, the episode has very little depth, arguably being the least distinctive of these map episodes. At least season 5's map episodes, for better and for worse, strained for complexity. Thankfully, this is in part made up for by just how charming Saffron and Coriander are. Unlike new season 5 characters like Sassy Saddles and Limestone Pie, they don't have a whole lot of hidden depth, but their family conflict and briefly described backstory is reasonably interesting, and their personalities are very likable. In addition, the representation of characters based on minority backgrounds is a great touch of diversity in this show*. As much as I want My Little Pony to stop piling on new characters, these are yet more solid additions.
Zesty Gourmand, meanwhile, is a clear hate sink, possessing no redeeming traits and existing in the story solely as a despicable antagonist. She's not particularly memorable, but she serves the job well enough. Unfortunately, as a reviewer, I am a little uncomfortable with what this episode's implicit anti-critic stance. The primary issue is that Zesty presumes to tell others what they can and can't like, and while I'm no fan of pretentious, arrogant critics, the fact remains that critics can save you from a poor experience, and there are plenty of legitimately terrible restaurants out there. I have to wonder if Zesty's opinions are actually popular, and who she actually works for. Does she work for a newspaper? Does that newspaper get frequent complaints? Or is it some sort of regional taste thing? This doesn't really matter, but it's unclear.
At the same time, though, "A Hearth's Warming Tale" writer Michael Vogel imbues the episode with charm, crafting a strong cultural atmosphere in the restaurant and keeping the interactions between the lead characters endearing. As a result, the episode is consistently enjoyable, even without a whole lot distinguishing it. A lot of this really is down to Saffron and Coriander, who are likeable enough that it's easy to be invested in their plight. The unique Indian-inspired ambiance also helps keep the episode from feeling too stale, as does the still-fresh duo of Rarity and Pinkie Pie. Moreover, aside from the whole critic issue, this is the cleanest map episode to date. It's less ambitious, but it's also free from any real major issues, and although its predictability makes it less entertaining, it's still a very consistent, likeable story.
What I find especially interesting is how Rarity's fame becomes important at the end of the episode. Right now, of the mane six, Twilight is a princess and both Rarity and Rainbow Dash are celebrities. While Pinkie Pie, Applejack and Fluttershy don't share the same level of fame, they're still national heroes, even if they're so rarely recognized as such. This acknowledgement of Rarity's celebrity giving her a stronger voice is very interesting, and having her use it to promote struggling businesses is a good showcase of her generosity. Meanwhile, Pinkie continues to have her accomplishments ignored, but I suppose that comes with having smaller goals. After all, at least some of the main characters have to have more modest ambitions.
The episode also boasts a song called "It's Gonna Work," and as if the showrunners somehow heard my complaints about the previous episode's song, because this song has a very distinctive flavour which utterly embarrasses "Can I Do It On My Own" from "Flutter Brutter." Much like the restaurant, it has an Indian style to it, and while the instrumental is a little overblown, the tune is very fun and catchy. I might just be happy to hear a song in this show that doesn't sound like a remix of earlier songs, but much like the season premiere, that freshness just makes the song all the more exciting.
"Spice Up Your Life" doubles down on the formulas of the map episodes, but it does so in a way that is consistently enjoyable, due in no large part to a couple of great new characters and a few small touches that make the episode stand out just a little from the pack. For the most part, the episode coasts on the charm of its lead pair and its new characters, but these prove to be more than enough, thanks in no small part to the delightful writing of Michael Vogel. Add in a distinctive song, and you have yet another solid episode of season 6.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: It feels so great to be satisfied with this show again.
*EDIT: Since writing this review, I've discovered that Saffron and Coriander are voiced by white actors. That is highly disappointing. Is there some reason why they couldn't hire South Asian voice talent? The episode doesn't seem to be culturally insensitive, but this casting does cast a bit of a shadow over the episode, especially for a forgettably charming episode like this. If you're not even going to cast actual Indian people, is the Indian cultural motif a little exploitative? I don't know, but this casting choice is highly questionable.