Sunday, 23 October 2016

Season 6 reflections.

In case you haven't gotten the hint, I actually liked season 6 a fair bit. Although it doesn't quite fix all of the show's problems, it does go some way towards fixing a lot of them, and especially compared to season 5 it's a much more entertaining season. Most of the main characters have personal flaws again, the status quo is occasionally mucked around with, a surprising number of episodes break from formula, and most importantly, a good majority of episodes are just plain entertaining. There are still plenty of improvements to be made, but this was never a perfect show, and for the first time since season 3, I'm not just being strung along by potential and hope that the show will improve. Just tighten up what we were given here and I'll be happy.

Beginning this season with "The Crystalling" set a high bar. It's not the most entertaining two-parter we've had, but its unconventional structure and focus on character depth implied a fresh new direction for the show. I'm not entirely sure the season delivered on that promise, but it did do a lot of things which broke formula and at least hinted at moving forward the status quo. Be it "Newbie Dash" with its take on the military subculture, "The Times They Are a Changeling" introducing Thorax, or literally everything about "The Saddle Row Review," this season is a lot more interested in trying new ideas and experimenting on a structural level. The latter half sunk back into formula and predictability slightly more often than I'd like, but as many bland episodes as there were, there were about as many episodes which were at least enjoyable if not my favourites of the season.

Significantly, there's very few episodes this season which I had an especially terrible time watching, and even those I found relatively unenjoyable - "No Second Prances," "Applejack's Day Off," "The Cart Before the Ponies" - all have something worthwhile. Again I find myself comparing that to season 5, where four entire episodes - four! - have almost nothing going for them, but in actuality, this is the first season of this entire show which lacks a single episode that I have outright hated. That's not to say I liked every episode this season, especially with all the tedious stretches of the latter half, but season 6 is a big leap above season 5 in consistency, especially with the valleys in quality being much higher than they have been in the past. If some of these writers have gotten their act together, season 7 could easily be the best season yet.

A big trend in season 5 was the increasing reliance on brand new characters to tell stories. While this isn't particularly scaled back this time around, a lot of these new characters are simply better, and the vast majority of them don't take too much focus off of the main cast. Almost every new character this season is distinctive and endearing, whereas in season 5 they were often identified primarily through their problems. Better still, several of these new characters were a conduit for the show to demonstrate entertaining and thoughtful characterization. Zephyr Breeze was a showcase for Fluttershy's newfound confidence as well as her long-held compassion, Quibble Pants served to invoke Rainbow Dash's passion and courage, and Thorax allowed Spike to face a genuinely challenging personal dilemma. While new characters do occasionally steal the spotlight, as in "Top Bolt," whichever main cast members happen to be present are almost always highly entertaining regardless - this season had three episodes utilizing the dreaded Cutie Map, and all three of them are a total blast.

Tonally, season 6 is as diverse as any season, but it definitely takes a shift away from the seriousness which dominated season 5. Rather than constantly shoot for poignancy, this season often allowed itself to just have fun. This contrast is perhaps best seen in the aforementioned map episodes, which this season are light and bouncy where last season they were frequently oppressively dour. That's not to say that this season doesn't have its poignant bits - "A Hearth's Warming Tail" and "The Times They Are a Changeling" are among the show's absolute most powerful - but more often the show goes for funny or heartwarming, and I think that really complements the style. There are few outright adventure episodes, and the few this season has offered are aggressively character-driven, with story as an afterthought. This is good, because as fun as adventure episodes can be, the simple fact is that they very rarely mean anything personal to the characters. Leaving these episodes to be minor-but-fun is a decision which benefits the show greatly.

So, how about those characters, then? Sure, season 6 has finally prodded this show out of stagnation, but the biggest reason why I watch this show in the first place is because of how attached I am to its main cast. The few characters which came out of season 5 intact are as great as ever, while almost everyone else faces at least small improvements. The obvious winner is Fluttershy, who is finally putting some of that assertiveness to the test while still being easily recognizable as the Element of Kindness from the first five seasons. Earlier seasons have been very, very slowly moving her forward without actually being willing to take the final step, but season 6 finally does away with the scaredy-cat schtick and actually does something new with her. What a delight.

Consensus states that the other winner is Spike, and while it's true that this season has depicted him in a more dignified light overall, I've never really disliked his episodes. "Gauntlet of Fire," possibly the show's most baffling fan favourite to date, finally allows him to join his pony friends in tediously eschewing any sort of faults, but all of his other appearances this season have been at least highly entertaining, once again proving that he's just as compelling a character as the mane six. However, this wasn't something I ever thought needed to be proven.

Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, had a particularly significant season, peaking early with her finally graduating to full Wonderbolt status. While "Newbie Dash" isn't as polished as it maybe should have been, it does have a thoughtful take on Rainbow, and even with the episode's faults, having her finally achieve her dreams is truly satisfying. Several of her episodes this season give her a proactive role, something she's been sorely in need of for a good while now, and the immaturity she demonstrated in "Tanks For the Memories" is completely out of sight now. Unfortunately, the writers seem intent on reviving her ego after it having been gone for a couple seasons, and while I can understand that - especially given that she just became a Wonderbolt - it's a little disappointing, and the resurgence of her obsession with "cool" in "Applejack's 'Day' Off" certainly doesn't help matters. Even with that considered, however, Dash has had a considerable resurgence this season after having been shown so little love in the past couple, and in spite of certain disappointments, it's still been a strong season for her.

Applejack, on the other hand, has finally been given some consistent character flaws. Nearly every single one of her appearances this season has been united by a common thread of stubbornness, and season 6 is finally able to make that meaningful. As weak as "Applejack's 'Day' Off" is, Applejack is a thoughtful - if half-formed - redeeming quality. Once she sets her mind to something, it's hard to get her to stop, even if it's clearly inefficient or having a negative impact on those around her. Usually, she at least has good intentions, even if she's clearly doing more harm than good. Unfortunately, the season consistently struggles with making this entertaining, and episodes starring Applejack are often among the most threadbare this season, almost uniformly featuring skeletal plots with tediously rote gags at best. Hopefully, season 7 can make her appearances as fun to watch as they are to think about.

Rarity and Pinkie Pie were pretty solid this season as well, retaining a lot of their charm from season 5, where they were among the highlights. The big question is whether this season can finally make Twilight interesting again, and the answer is... no. Season 6 has been sort of a give-and-take for her, and while she's demonstrated her quirks considerably more often than usual, she's been pushed to the margins even more, and as a result those flaws she was starting to show at the end of season 5 are mostly absent here. The introduction of Starlight Glimmer as her student should have given her something to do, but the vast majority of her appearances are as a minor supporting character or to find a solution to someone else's mess. Thankfully, "The Saddle Row Review" had the first glimpse of who she used to be in seemingly forever, and many other episodes had her reclaim a lot more of the dorky quirks which made her so lovable in the first three seasons. It's still a net negative, and at this point I'm pretty close to writing her off as a lost cause.

Speaking of Starlight, her character arc has been a significant recurring element of this season, and while it's imperfect, it's largely been a success at introducing a complex and likeable new character to the main cast. While she's often described as a "discount Sunset Shimmer," her approach to redemption differs greatly. Her guilt is tied to social ineptitude, and as a result she's much less proactive in accepting friendship, which is compounded by the fact that she sees friendship as a task rather than as an organic part of life. Her episodes around the middle of the season reestablish continuity with her earlier personality, as she doesn't appear to have a strong grasp on how her actions can negatively impact others, but although this makes her significantly more complex than she would be otherwise, it also creates problems when this trend is never directly confronted.

The bigger issue with Starlight Glimmer is that, despite Twilight's increasing absence from the show, she's still in her mentor's shadow, particularly with regards to her own personality quirks. Acting out due to anxiety is something which was already associated with Twilight, and having her main interest be the broad field of magic does little to make her stand out as a unique member of the main cast. Additionally, while friendship does appear to have helped her grow as a person, it would have been significantly more satisfying had we seen more of her befriending the main cast, as much of the process of her learning about friendship seems to have happened off screen. It's not a distracting leap, but it's hard not to see wasted potential there.

Where I don't see wasted potential is the Cutie Mark Crusaders' new role, as although there's only two episodes where the Crusaders actually help other ponies, that particular role doesn't suggest a whole lot of possible growth for them. In the future it could serve as their Cutie Map, but having both would take even more time away from potential main character development. As is, the biggest problem with their appearances this season is that they've not been given much chance to branch off and explore separate interests. Inevitably this would have reduced the number of mane six episodes, but given that a few of those episodes, specifically in the latter half, are fairly bland, it ultimately might have been for the better had the Crusaders taken those slots.

One major trend in this season's humour has been a smattering of especially unsubtle adult sight gags. Ranging from a bound Daring Do dakimakura to Applejack waking up with a pig, these little bits of risque humour are brief and far from overwhelming, but they're noticeably more numerous this season. When one scene involves the mane six nursing magic hangovers, it's hard to ignore that this season is being a little more risky with its humour, and this kind of joke is dispersed just right to be a lot of fun without being distracting.

Surprisingly, a lot more new writers have come along this season, although with the departure of Amy Keating Rogers and M.A. Larson, that might have been necessary. First there's the due of Michael P. Fox and Wil Fox, who debuted with the exquisite "The Gift of the Maud Pie" but who soon after sunk into bland, barebones plots which do increasingly poor jobs with main character dynamics. "Gift" is such a brilliant character showcase that the utterly dreadful characterisation of "P.P.O.V." is baffling coming from the same writers. Dave Rapp had the misfortune of being handed a significant milestone in the show's history, but while "Newbie Dash" is disappointing, most of that is due to Rapp's difficulties with humour. He has a strong eye for characterisation, and even his stumbles are admirable, but two of his three writing credits are almost entirely sabotaged by the poor quality of their comedy.

Michael Vogel, meanwhile, shows a lot of promise, especially given that his debut episode was the magnificent "A Hearth's Warming Tail," arguably the show's greatest audiovisual achievement. Each and every one of his writing credits are at least interesting in some way, and with Haber gone he could very well be the single best writer currently working on the show. His only writing credit which isn't a total blast is "Every Little Thing She Does," and there he shows some real range through that episode's complexity. F.M. De Marco is one of this season's random one-episode cameos, and his one episode showcased a solid gift for visual comedy and atmosphere but a lot of challenges with pacing and character complexity, and the fact that his one episode, "28 Pranks Later," plays out like a canned season 1 or 2 episode doesn't help matters.

Jennifer Skelly is the other one-episode wonder, and while her single episode - "Buckball Season" - shows similar issues and also suffers from the single worst premise of the entire season, she showcases a deft touch for the nuances of characterisation. A little more practice and she could be one of the show's better writers... if she writes anything else this season. Finally, Kevin Burke and Chris "Doc" Wyatt popped in late in the season with the wildly ambitious "The Times They Are a Changeling," and while that episode was highly impressive, their second episode, "Viva Las Pegasus," is just as formulaic as "Times" is risky. What both episodes share is a strong feel for most of the characters, which makes their input on "P.P.O.V.," the worst-characterised episode of the season, particularly baffling.

Season 6 isn't a whole lot more focused than season 5 was, but it does a great deal to improve on season 5's failures. While it has its own share of issues, many of these are negligible in the face of just how solid this season has been as a whole. The main characters could use a little more purpose going forward, and a couple of them still aren't quite as consistently well-written as they should be, but the season moves all of them at least somewhat in the right direction, and it can't be overstated how much the sudden uptick in non-formulaic episodes rejuvenates the show. A lot of times, my biggest complaint about an episode was that it was too formulaic, but this is because so much of this season actually broke from the usual formulas and dared to try something new. At times, it worked, and at others, it didn't, but combine that with how many episodes this season are just plain fun to watch, and for once, the show actually feels like it's getting its act together. Hopefully, with the new writers having had time to figure things out, the next season will be even better.

So, like I said in my review of "The Crystalling:" Welcome back, My Little Pony. I missed you.

The sum of all of my out-of-100 scores, including a few I assigned in retrospect but never uploaded, is 73/100. The score I'm going to assign might a tad modest, but understand that I really do love this season, and there's a small but growing part of me which wants to rate it even higher.


No comments:

Post a Comment