Sunday, 12 June 2016

Season 6 midway reflections

After this week's episode, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic will go on hiatus. When the show went on mid-season hiatus last year, I published my thoughts on the season so far. For season 5, these thoughts were mixed, but I largely felt frustrated and disappointed by the season, which continued right to the season finale. Thankfully, season 6 is a marked improvement, and while it's still far from perfect, it's the first time since at least early season 4 that I have been happy with this show's direction.

For all of its experimentation, season 5 consistently hesitated to take risks, and any changes to the status quo were things that wouldn't take effect until the next season. It frequently hobbled its ideas for a variety of reasons, most commonly either time constraints or an unwillingness to push into full-on drama. Season 6, meanwhile, has done a much better job of moving past the status quo, not only absorbing the major changes of season 5 but also fully exploring its ideas and frequently straying from the show's formulas. The season premiere neglected even having an overwhelming threat until the very end of its first half, and the vast majority of subsequent episodes have taken on fresh new structures. 

At first, this was largely in service of a renewed focus on character development. The season premiere was a slice-of-life episode that attempted to develop Starlight Glimmer and other side characters, while subsequent episodes like "The Gift of the Maud Pie," "On Your Marks," "No Second Prances," "Newbie Dash,' and "Flutter Brutter" all serve to either develop a main character or showcase their development. Compared to season 5, new character introductions are relatively infrequent, and in only two out of eleven episodes have they taken the focus away from the main characters. There's still a handful of lightweight episodes, but the more weighty episodes always emphasize characterization and character development. The last time this has been the case was season 3. 

Meanwhile, episodes with less focus on character development like "A Hearth's Warming Tale" and "The Saddle Row Review" still explore alternate structures to the show's usual formulas, and in addition, they play on changes to the status quo. If season 5 can be praised for one thing, it's finally introducing several genuinely meaningful changes to the status quo. While Starlight Glimmer hasn't appeared as often as expected, her presence still changes Twilight's role in the show, for better and for worse. Meanwhile, Rarity and Rainbow Dash have both achieved their dreams and reached celebrity status, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders are exploring post-cutie mark life. This changing status quo is often a basis for episode plots, and even just having it in the background makes the show feel more alive than it has in a long time. 

Even those characters who have remained complacent are being explored in clearer detail. Pinkie's connection to her family is explored further, Applejack gets a fairly comprehensive character showcase, and Fluttershy is finally showing off her character development. Yes, season 6 even made Fluttershy interesting again. On top of this, season 6 continues season 5's trend of showcasing underused character team-ups, most significantly the pairing of Rarity and Pinkie Pie which has occurred twice now. The recent re-introduction of the cutie map may actually be something of a mixed blessing in this regard, and if it's the only way that the writers can use fresh new pairings, then I might be willing to accept it. Still, it's disappointing that such a lazy plot device is still necessary, and even more so that the writers are completely unwilling to explore it in more detail. If it was given a little bit of backstory, it might seem less like a crutch. 

Especially exciting after the wildly uneven season 5 is that the worst season 6 has been so far is somewhat dull and uninteresting. Only two of these eleven episodes haven't been at least enjoyable, and even they have had their strengths. Unfortunately, the season still lacks a strong sense of direction, even in spite of more focus on continuing plotlines. While Starlight Glimmer, the CMC, and Rainbow Dash all have clear room to move forward, the show hasn't honed in on these subplots, and there's no guarantee they'll even go anywhere interesting. The season's biggest attempt at complexity in "No Second Prances" ultimately struggled under its own weight, and staunchly refused to take its more compelling ideas anywhere interesting, and the earlier episode "On Your Marks" similarly struggled to hold itself together and take its ideas somewhere worthwhile. Neither episode is irredeemable, and the season hasn't gone anywhere as complex since, but having hoped for a bit more complexity going in, seeing the show struggle so much with it is disappointing.

This lack of focus is probably inherent to shows like this, and as much as I'd like to see more plot continuity, it's doubtful that My Little Pony will ever try this out, especially given that the network wants to be able to air episodes in any order. Unfortunately, this isn't the only flaw from season 5 that has carried over. While the trend of introducing new characters at the existing characters' expense has slowed significantly, it is still present, and the show still sometimes still makes the mistake of thinking that worldbuilding can compensate for a lightweight main plot. There are far fewer problematic elements than there were in season 5, but the show still occasionally stumbles in ways that lead to unfortunate implications. I've actually perceived these far less often than some other people, but neglecting the idea of hazing in "Newbie Dash" and casting white voice actors for Indian-inspired characters in "Spice Up Your Life" are problematic in ways that are hard to deny. 

And yet, this is still the most satisfying the show has been in years. In season 6, My Little Pony feels rejuvenated, thanks in no small part to an altered status quo, a greater focus on main character development, and a greater willingness to take risks. The alleged "exploring Equestria" theme feels misguided, but this far into season 6, the show has mostly kept its priorities straight, and the result is a legitimately enjoyable season with only a couple of subpar episodes. After sticking with the show even through its most tedious and frustrating seasons, it's exciting that, finally, the show is pulling itself together and daring to be satisfying again. This isn't my ideal MLP season, but it's a huge return to form, and that's good enough for me. 

No comments:

Post a Comment