"28 Pranks Later" was a particularly worrisome synopsis. It promised to repeat the worst crimes of "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well" and continue to have Rainbow Dash re-learn already-known lessons. Thankfully, the episode itself is surprisingly good-natured and entertaining, even though it still feels like a repetition of earlier character development. It's just too bad that this is the show at its most thuddingly predictable and simplistic, repeating all of the previous episode's mistake with better characterization and humour. For an episode so close to being legitimately solid to simply not go the extra mile suggests that this show is simply not willing to do what it needs to do to reach its former quality, and that's the most disappointing thing this show has done since "Newbie Dash."
In this episode, Rainbow Dash is confronted about her pranking streak, which her friends have not enjoyed very much. Misunderstanding her friends' complaints as a simple accusation of laziness, she goes out of her way to impress them more with pranks. Eventually, she decides to prank the entirety of Ponyville by replacing the CMC's scout cookies with goofy "prank cookies" which coat the eater's mouth with rainbow colours. This prank goes horribly wrong, however, when it turns all of Ponyville into zombies.
The whole cookie-obsessed-zombie premise is really fun on paper, and the show often creates a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere to accompany it. Unfortunately, while this should have been the episodes centrepiece, it's mostly reserved for later on, and even then it's drawn out with repetition and slow pacing. If played entirely straight, this could have made for a fun, tense, spooky episode that might have made up for the episode's other issues, but instead the whole deal is a prank played to teach Dash about the error of her actions. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the actual execution is repetitive and showcases the vast majority of its ideas right off the bat, only to conclude a few minutes later.
This is compounded by the utter predictability of the episode. Every twist is telegraphed several minutes in advance, and the episode's attempts to build up suspense only feel like drawing out the inevitable when nothing is unexpected and every event is obvious. I've tried to avoid criticizing My Little Pony for being predictable in the past, as there's plenty that can be done with a predictable overarching plot, but just like "The Cart Before the Ponies," the episode provides so little else to latch on to. "28 Pranks Later" at least has a few inventively humorous moments, but as the episode goes on, it increasingly leans on suspense and its cool tone, and unfortunately only the latter holds the final act afloat.
Before the climax, at least, there's a fair few solid jokes, which comfortably demonstrate how they can seem funny to Rainbow Dash but not to the ponies being pranked. One scene has Dash replace Rarity's sewing machine with cake after planting a red herring, which is clever but also seems to damage some of Rarity's fabric. Later, one scene opens with a fairly adult sight gag of Applejack waking up in bed with a pig, only to discover that her bed has been subtly moved to the pig-pen. There's plenty of other fun moments, which only makes it all the more grating that the episode doesn't have a snappier pace to make them even stronger.
A large chunk of the problem is that having Rainbow Dash learn this lesson feels redundant for her as a character, and the episode makes very few attempts to add any more nuance. One scene involves her pulling a rather simple prank on Pinkie, indicating that RD's pranking is done out of a desire to amuse others, but the episode never lets her express this. Rainbow Dash never realizes anything on her own here, and it robs her of depth which would be fairly easy to include. All the writers would need to do is have Rainbow Dash come to more conclusions on her own, and suddenly the episode possesses a lot more nuance.
More frustrating still, that added nuance might make Rainbow feel less like she's regressing here. It's been a very long time since she displayed the sensitivity and maturity that made her great in "Hurricane Fluttershy" and "Wonderbolts Academy," and here her pranking runs directly opposite to her character development. I shouldn't be here telling the writers how to do their job, but all they needed was to do more with Rainbow's intentions. As it stands, Rainbow is simply in the wrong and everyone else is simply in the right, and that doesn't make for an especially compelling conflict when it feels like Rainbow should have learned this already.
With all that said, the episode does boast a great and fairly impressive lesson. What's funny to you might not be funny to someone else, especially if that other person is the butt of the joke. A good prank should be inclusive, and what an individual might find funny would vary. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this would be much better if Rainbow Dash were written with more nuance, but as is it's still a very strong moral that even a lot of adults could stand to learn, and those kinds of morals are the show's best. It's just a shame that it's stated in the very second scene without a whole lot added to it.
"28 Pranks Later" is by no means terrible, although it'd possibly be less frustrating if it were. The episode is so frequently clever and fun that its predictability, slack pacing, and generally simplisitc characterization feel at best like wasted potential and at worst like laziness. Its great moral is offset by Dash once again needing to learn to be sensitive (something she had learned by the end of season 2), and it seems so easy to make the episode more interesting that its refusal to be more than a simple but somewhat funny moral fable is aggravating. This reluctance to go above and beyond the call of duty is something I thought was going to dissipate this season. It's not like My Little Pony has ever been consistent, but six seasons in, it feels like every step forward the show makes ultimately means little. A tighter focus on character depth would go a long way.
But hey, it's not terrible.
Starting here, I'm going to try out a new rating system where I score episodes based on what I think are the four primary components of a good My Little Pony episode, averaged into a single score out of 100. For "28 Pranks Later," the score is as follows: