Saturday, 28 October 2017

Season 7 reflections.

This show needs direction.

I've been saying that for a while. The show has become increasingly scattershot and inconsistent since as far back as season 5, and nobody involved seems to actually understand what to do with the main cast. These past three seasons have all been heavily reliant on new characters, heavy-handed moralizing, and various other crutches - anything to give them an excuse to not actually consider what direction the main characters should go in.

This show has never been serialized, but there used to be certain recurrent themes and clear character arcs. I don't think that's been the case for a while now, and the show has been flailing since season 5. In season 5, the writers tried to compensate by straining for pathos every other episode. Season 6 softened the blow with an endless supply of freewheeling experimentation. But there's a sense of obligation to season 7, like the writers are simply going down a checklist, and even the best episodes ride on the back of easy premises and filled-in blanks. Far too often, characters act as vessels for the moral rather than the other way around, and the show's desperate efforts to do anything other than develop the main characters are more feeble here than ever before.

What the My Little Pony crew forgets is that growing up doesn't mean throwing away the past entirely. The newer seasons are much more intricate than the earlier seasons, but this hasn't always been a change for the better, and few of these new writers seem to understand how to make these characters sing.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Episode review: "Shadow Play"

Last year, I was worried that "To Where and Back Again" would be a by-the-numbers, over-serious finale which just rehashes the same plot points the show had been trucking out for years now. To my delight, it turned out to be something else entirely, and it quickly became one of my favourite two-parters in the entire show. "To Where and Back Again" excelled because it was a character-driven story which focused on the human side of the story rather than the rote details, and as such it was refreshingly light on exposition and action.

Turns out all I had to do was wait a year, however, because "Shadow Play" is exactly what I was worried about back in season 6. It's the worst example yet of the show's increasingly dull mythology, and it's filled with backstory exposition which takes itself way too seriously. There are certainly moments of humour here which bring the episode to life, but the plot is just so formulaic that it's hard to be invested in any of it, and enough of the episode takes itself so seriously that the fun moments can't break the monotony.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Episode review: "Uncommon Bond"

Look, "Uncommon Bond" is perfectly inoffensive. It has a decent moral. The core dilemma is moderately relatable. It's not obnoxious, it doesn't have any structural defects, and doesn't feel lazy. But it's slow, safe, and mundane, and it predicates its entire emotional core on a relationship which hasn't been given much development. It's another season 7 episode which doesn't care about anything other than checking off boxes and getting a moral episode. I mean, at least it's competent and not entirely boring.

But I can't stand this formula anymore. My Little Pony didn't become popular by being this slow and forgettable. And this one also has Starlight once again demonstrating few strong personality traits aside from self-pity and a disregard for others, which can only be offset so much by Trixie being funny and the others being sweet. I just don't like her anymore, and she's a dead weight on an episode which already doesn't do very much to elevate itself.

I feel like I've made all of these complaints before. But I'm just so tired of this stuff.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Episode review: "Secrets and Pies"

There's a small list of My Little Pony episodes which I consider guilty pleasures. These are episodes which have enough clever gags and fun dialogue to keep me happy, but which have bad enough plots that it brings down my enjoyment somewhat. Season 2 had the sloppy but energetic "Putting Your Hoof Down." Season 3 had some of the show's best dialogue layered on top of the asinine "Spike at Your Service." I find these two episodes hugely entertaining, and even though their poor narratives kill my buzz a little, it's not enough to overcome their respective qualities.

Joining this short list is season 7's "Secrets and Pies," which combines a threadbare storyline and off-base characterization with a ceaseless, energetic procession of clever gags. While I've often complained about episodes which don't have enough humour relative to plot, this episode is very much the opposite, with hilarious scene after hilarious scene which still can't help but drag as a result of how inane and thin the actual storyline is. But man, it's just so inventive and so madcap that I found it hard to resist, and it even manages to lessen the guilt somewhat by adding some nice insight at the end.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Episode review: "Once Upon a Zeppelin"

Despite eschewing a lot of the tired story structures of the past, season 7 has several familiar tropes of its own. It's heavily reliant on externally driven stories where a main character is troubled by some external force, and many of these stories are written heavily to theme to the point of tedium. However, these formulas don't always ruin their stories, and many episodes transcended those tropes, either with nuance ("The Perfect Pear") or humour ("Parental Glideance"). 

"Once Upon a Zeppelin" is still a little on-the-nose, and its conflict still has too many external actors, but it's the best example yet of how good jokes and a good moral can overcome smaller issues. It's another contender for the funniest episode this season, packed with sharp character-based humour while also giving more personality to Shining Armour and Twilight's parents. Further, it's one of the few episodes to actually explore how Twilight's new responsibilities affect her usual anxieties, and although it's a bit blunt, the moral of learning to draw boundaries is a rock solid complement for "A Health of Information."

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Episode review: "Marks and Recreation"

With the Cutie Mark Crusaders now in the business of solving others' problems, their stories have a lot of potential to expand the lore of what "cutie marks" are, how they work, and what they mean to the inhabitants of this world. Last season, we got "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks," an adorable episode which fulfilled all of that potential and then some, exploring one of the two biggest issues imaginable for the Crusaders. "Marks and Recreation" follows up on the other half of the equation, but it lacks all of the things that made last year's episode such a delight.

To be honest, I'm ready to declare season 7 a total wash. With only two episodes and the finale left, I don't see much hope that it'll step out of its usual formulas and finally pick up some humour or subtext. "Marks and Recreation," like many episodes this season, is didactic and not very funny, featuring only a few very flimsy jokes and a plot which hops from formula beat to formula beat all without providing anything of interest. This should have been a personal story on par with "Fault," but what we've got is yet another of those episodes where a dull new character needs to be taught what's right. I just can't deal with that.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Episode review: "A Health of Information"

This is the second week in a row where an episode I never had much interest in proved to be a pleasant surprise. "A Health of Information" is kinda simple and rather expository, but it's got a breakneck pace, a strong collection of jokes, and some surprisingly high stakes which lend the episode a lot of intensity. As I've said before, this show doesn't need a strong emotional core or a sharp eye for continuity to impress me. Those things are nice, but before it has that, all I want from it is to be fun. "A Health of Information" is probably one of the 5 most entertaining episodes this season. Not bad for a story which seemingly only exists to set up the finale!

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Episode review: "It Isn't the Mane Thing About You"

It's always the ones you don't expect, isn't it? 

Last season, I was surprised to enjoy "28 Pranks Later," a fairly messy episode that was nonetheless made enjoyable by a handful of solid jokes and a decently creepy atmosphere. From the synopsis, it seemed likely to have a mean-spirited, vindictive tone, but unlike the similar "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well," it used its plot as an excuse to have some funny visual gags and indulge in zombie tropes rather than wasting time humiliating Rainbow Dash for some anachronistic wrong. It was far from perfect, but it was the season's most pleasant surprise. 

"It Isn't the Mane Thing About You" is less funny than "28 Pranks Later," but it's every bit as surprising. Despite its inherently awkward premise, the episode almost entirely avoids cringe comedy, and while what gags it does offer are mostly pedestrian, the episode's story structure recalls the show's earliest seasons in a good way. This is a story which gives itself time to breathe, which allows itself to be simple but relatable, which seems to understand the show's original charms. If only it were funnier, it would feel like a genuine return to form. Still, this is surprisingly pleasant! 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Episode review: "Daring Done?"

Daring Do has long been one of the most consistently entertaining characters in My Little Pony. As an obvious Indiana Jones homage, she allows the show to tell the kind of adventurous stories which were always part of the package without being constrained by the characters, and her appearances often boast more charm and creativity than many of the show's other adventure episodes. Until this point, all three of her episodes were great fun, but Daring Do as a character has never been explored in great detail, and is often the individual to learn the least from her journeys.

"Daring Done?" seeks to change that, giving Daring the kind of significant internal conflict which she previously lacked. However, in spite of its genuinely interesting premise, the episode does everything in its power to water down its own story, and features some of the worst humour I've seen in the whole show. Some decent world building keeps it from being entirely worthless, but that's faint praise when so much of the episode is an exhausting chore to sit through, and it can't even commit to the things which originally made it interesting.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Episode review: "To Change a Changeling"

Humour will do a lot to save an otherwise subpar episode for me, but I do have my limits. "To Change a Changeling" tells a largely uninteresting story with unclear themes and shallow characterization, but it also has a lot of great dialogue and humorous moments. The latter does a lot to keep the episode afloat, but there's only so many issues I can forgive before they start to overwhelm the humour, and while this episode is on the right side of the line, it's teetering near the edge, and it'd need to be a lot funnier for me to fully forgive a plot this dull.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Episode review: "Campfire Tales"

My Little Pony does not have interesting mythology. The fact is, the vast majority of its world and backstory are either heavily based on other stories or designed to fulfill a specific role. That doesn't need to be the case, but this is a children's program where most worldbuilding is made up during the scripting phase rather than taken from any grander vision, so the easiest route is simply transplanting ponies onto familiar stories from human mythology, or taking creatures from other fantasy stories and building a rudimentary, sometimes overly simplistic society around them.

With "Campfire Tales," the show seems interested in finally adding some weight to its mythos, and yet it falls into all the same traps. There are three stories in this episode, but all three are simple moral lessons which transplant human cultures onto Equestria without exploring them in much detail. Add in a framing story which tries to tie that to the actual main characters of the show, and you have an episode which can't do justice to either Equestria's past or present. It's still nice to see a diverse range of environments, and there's moments of charm and tension here and there, but it's not enough to make the episode particularly exciting.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Episode review: "Triple Threat"

One of my weak spots as a fan of this show is pony politics. Good or bad, if a My Little Pony episode revolves around the main characters struggling to adjust to new responsibilities - especially if said responsibilities are related to diplomacy - then I'm bound to get some enjoyment out of it. "Triple Threat" is a little too predictable to be on par with "Party Pooped," my favourite episode of this type, but it delivers the sympathetic internal conflict which always drives these episodes, and has a lot of charming and funny moments to boot, as well as a great moral.

If anything brings "Triple Threat" down, it's the story itself, which is very predictable and is often expected to drive scenes with few jokes to liven things up. "Triple Threat" admirably gives its story more time to breathe than many episodes this season, but it still refuses to add any twists or even unexpected quirks, and while there's enough fun moments to carry the rote narrative, it's simply too familiar to sustain attention through the entire 22 minutes.

Still, this is a major improvement over the likes of "Forever Filly."

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Episode review: "Fame and Misfortune"

Alright, we've got one of those meta episodes here, and this one is directly criticizing the fandom, so I'm gonna need to take a step back and try not to take it personally. The show has never gone this far in addressing its viewers before, and while I know there's a lot of people who get overly aggressive with regards to this show, I don't think all of the criticisms presented here are entirely fair. If you're gonna criticize the people who support your product, you should really proceed gently so as not to alienate them, and "careful" doesn't really describe My Little Pony anymore. Instead, we get a strained metaphor which seems vaguely contemptuous of the adult fanbase in general, and doesn't supply a whole lot of sympathy for or even understanding of what it presents as the "other side."

But that's all subtext. The real reason why "Fame and Misfortune" doesn't work is that, like so many other episodes this season, it relies entirely on characters being creepy or irritating for humour, and even though it has the benefit of not making a recurring character unsympathetic, it's just not weird or creative enough for these obnoxious, unpleasant ponies to be anything other than obnoxious and unpleasant. However I might choose to interpret the subtext, I just don't enjoy this sort of humour, and that holds back the episode for me.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Equestria Girls special review: "Mirror Magic"

And that's a wrap. This is the last piece of Equestria Girls content we're getting this year. Three shorts, 66 minutes, and yet not a single note of substance. "Mirror Magic" is easily the worst of the three shorts, rehashing ideas from earlier two-parters while piling on other tiresome tropes and possessing absolutely no emotional resonance whatsoever. All three shorts are vacuous and mostly unimaginative, but whatever positive qualities were present in the other two are largely absent here. It does nothing to move the series forward, isn't particularly funny, and is filled to the brim with lazy storytelling and characterization. It is an absolute waste of time.

If you'd asked me last year, I would have said that Equestria Girls should really expand into being a proper series. Now, I just want it to be over with already. None of these shorts demonstrates even the slightest interest in exploring what actually has potential about this world and these characters, and that would be fine if they weren't also committed to these hollow, derivative, thorougly tired storylines. "Mirror Magic" has a bad villain, a predictable structure, limp gags, and one-note characterization, and I do not understand why it exists. It's stagnation of the worst kind, and completely absent from it is the heart and charm which drew me to My Little Pony in the first place.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Equestria Girls special review: "Movie Magic"

Okay, so "Dance Magic" was a fluke. This second short, "Movie Magic," is still low-stakes and impersonal, but it's a lot funnier than the first short, and makes much better use of both the Rainbooms' character traits and some of their magical powers as well. While I may dream of nuanced character arcs and satisfying narrative payoff, all I really ask of My Little Pony in all forms is that it's entertaining. I always felt that "Movie Magic" had the most potential of these shorts, and although it would benefit from being a bit snappier story-wise, the pacing is still brisk enough, and there's enough fun jokes and neat character moments this time around to entertain. Nice!

Equestria Girls special review: "Dance Magic"

Up until now, Equestria Girls has only told stories equivalent to the main show's two-part episodes. Even Legend of Everfree, which tried to incorporate several slice-of-life elements, eventually came back to having a magical villain threaten the camp, and the three films before that established high stakes from the beginning. As fun as some of these movies are, much of this series' appeal is in seeing familiar faces in this new, mundane, relatively familiar setting, and I've always hoped it would focus more on the individual lives of the main characters than on whatever event or villain caught their attention this week. 

"Dance Magic" isn't really that, but it is the first Equestria Girls installment to not feature a magical villain, and it's also by far the most low-stakes entry in the whole series. Considering that, it's a shame that the special is such a simplistic bore, expanding on easily the least interesting part of Legend of Everfree the least interesting way possible, and completely failing to build up to My Little Pony's most basic moral in quite some time. It has more energy than Everfree, but that's not saying much, especially when its story is even emptier. While I enjoy that "Dance Magic" has lower stakes than previous entries, those stakes are so impersonal that the entire story is impossible to care about. 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Episode review: "The Perfect Pear"

Melodrama is one of My Little Pony's foundational blocks. So many of the most emotionally affecting episodes of the show are melodramatic in nature, from "The Last Roundup" to "Hurricane Fluttershy" to "Wonderbolts Academy." But starting in season 5, the show's most dramatic episodes have become increasingly grand and pretentious in nature. Even the most naturalistic episodes of this time, "Amending Fences" and "The Mane Attraction," strained to have a greater point and to reflect the show at large, and then there are episodes like "A Royal Problem": tense, overstuffed, high-stakes stories which bear more resemblance to the two-parters than to the melodrama episodes of old.

Until now, the only episode like "Hurricane Fluttershy" in the past few seasons was "The Fault in Our Cutie Marks," that adorable, genuinely moving highlight of season 6. While "The Perfect Pear" has baggage which prevents it from reaching that level, it's every bit as emotionally effective in its own melodramatic, gooey way. It avoids any tough questions and builds on elements which the show never properly established, but goddamit, I wish the show were always this sweet and emotional and adorable. If "A Flurry of Emotions" represents half of what the show has been missing in recent years, "The Perfect Pear" represents the other half.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Episode review: "Discordant Harmony"

Thanks, Australia. 

I am generally biased in favour of Discord. The only episode starring him which I didn't at least enjoy a little was season 5's "What About Discord?," and that episode was meant to be unpleasant. A character who can bend the laws of reality to his will gives a lot of room for funny and creative visuals, and the only thing really holding him back is that he's always seemed like an unpleasant person to be around. He's always appeared emotionally immature and somewhat apathetic about how others feel about his actions, and this has made it increasingly unclear to me why the mane six tolerate him.

Earlier episodes have usually dealt with this either through Discord claiming to teach someone a lesson, or through having Discord himself learn a lesson, and while "Discordant Harmony" mostly leans towards the former, it also does a better job than any episode before it of making him sympathetic and even likeable. Its need to serve up creative visuals still results in Discord irritating almost every pony in his vicinity, but his intentions in this episode are better than ever, and those visuals are pretty creative and delightful anyway. The visuals do a good job of distracting from the exposition, and the moral is rock solid, making for an all-around enjoyable episode.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Episode review: "Not Asking for Trouble"

In any other season, "Not Asking for Trouble" would be a middle-of-the-road throwaway episode. It's simple, it repeats a lot of jokes, and its moral has already been done in this show. In season 7, however, I'm just glad the episode was funny, even though its simplicity wasn't enough to carry the handful of funny gags. Those repeated jokes are at least good on their own, Pinkie Pie is consistently delightful, and it's neat to learn just a little bit more about yak culture, but this is hardly a memorable episode in the grand scheme of the show, even with its small virtues.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Episode review: "A Royal Problem"

This is not what I wish it was.

The Celestia and Luna episode I wanted was a light-hearted, humorous slice-of-life. This is a semi-serious moral-driven episode. But it wouldn't be fair to begrudge the episode for that, especially since the episode we got is still very entertaining and hugely admirable. This entire season has had a laser-focus on moral-driven stories, and while that's often been for the worse, "A Royal Problem" demonstrates how well this formula can go with the right jokes and sufficient, well-thought-out character depth. Indeed, stuff like this is even enough to make me tolerate the Cutie Map at its most nonsensical, because otherwise a plot like this would likely not happen in the first place.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Episode review: "Honest Apple"

"Honest Apple" is an Applejack and Rarity episode, and I'm genuinely not sure if I have anything constructive left to say about episodes they share. Of course I didn't like "Honest Apple," because I think that pairing is inherently unentertaining. Of course Applejack's worst traits are exaggerated here, because that's just how episodes starring this duo work. If there's one thing I can uniquely criticize about this episode, it's the moral, which is even more unbalanced than that of "Parental Glideance," and is followed by the episode falling apart at the seams with a formulaic ending and some genuinely obnoxious jokes, more or less destroying all my goodwill towards it.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Episode review: "Hard to Say Anything"

I'd almost forgotten how it feels to hate an episode of My Little Pony this much. How long has it been? Since "What About Discord?" I mean, "Fluttershy Leans In" was awful, but at least it didn't sink to this level of annoyance and odiousness. "Hard to Say Anything" has almost nothing to redeem it. Most of its jokes fall flat, its plot is tired and lazy, the characters are borderline reprehensible, and the moral is pedestrian at best. Every season has its stinkers, but I was really hoping we'd moved past My Little Pony stooping this low, and having this in an already dire season is really starting to test my patience with this show.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Episode review: "Parental Glideance"

There's a reason humour is my highest priority in this show. A funny or cute episode with narrative inconsistencies, a predictable storyline, or flawed characterization is still a funny or cute episode, whereas a boring episode with zero inconsistencies, is still a boring episode. The wonderful "Parental Glideance" is a strong example of that, demonstrating how energy and charm can overpower even a weak moral, and while I can't help but feel frustrated with the direction the moral took, everything around that is so plainly entertaining that it's still hard to resist. The fact is, I'll take a fun episode with a weak moral over yesterday's dull episode with a strong moral, and getting some lovely new characters in the form of Rainbow Dash's parents certainly helps.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Episode review: "Forever Filly"

My Little Pony will probably survive season 7, but I might not. This is the third episode in a row which I haven't had much fun with, and the second in a row which appears to have placed character consistency and narrative focus above any sort of personality or humour. "Forever Filly" is much like season 6's "The Cart Before the Ponies," not only in how it focuses on how adults treat children, but also because it grafts a specific archetype onto a preexisting character to the point of overpowering what makes that character endearing in the first place. But whereas "The Cart Before the Ponies" at least had a little bit of structural messiness, "Forever Filly" doesn't contain a single beat which isn't in direct service of its story, which would be admirable if it didn't have the side effect of straining out almost any entertainment the episode could have offered. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Episode review: "Fluttershy Leans In"

And season 7 has officially lost me. "Fluttershy Leans In" provides a continuation of season 6's impressive treatment of Fluttershy, concluding her character arc by presenting her with a massive ambition which she finally has the confidence to see through. As nice as that might sound, though, this is an "Amending Fences"-type episode which gives absolutely zero personal growth to anyone involved and simply seeks to demonstrate Fluttershy's newfound strength without any sort of internal conflict. Worse still, "Fluttershy Leans In" lacks even a compelling secondary character, instead letting Fluttershy react to moronic antagonists without even a hint of decent intentions, and then has the gall to take itself mostly seriously on top of that. The result is an episode with little to redeem it except already established characterization and the specific phrasing of its moral. How did this even happen?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Episode review: "Rock Solid Friendship"

Since her introduction in season 4, Maud Pie has made at least one appearance in every season, and every single one of those appearances is stronger than the last. By season 6's "The Gift of the Maud Pie," the writers had grown comfortable with subtly suggesting her emotions, and here, they've gone a step further and fleshed out her flaws and anxieties. She is rapidly becoming one of the absolute best characters in the entire show because of this, which makes it all the more disappointing that she shares "Rock Solid Friendship" with Pinkie Pie at her most obnoxious and Starlight Glimmer at her most bland. This is an episode with a great deal to admire, but it's really only got one joke, and all the nuance in the world only means so much when the episode gets in its own way so often.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Episode review: "A Flurry of Emotions"

While I wasn't very fond of the first two episodes of season 7, they represented a further shift in the right direction for this show. Both were very low-key slice-of-life affairs which took advantage of changes to the status quo, and "Celestial Advice" in particular finally showed an interest in the supporting cast which the show already has instead of tossing yet more new ponies onto the pile. Both of those traits are present in the adorable "A Flurry of Emotions," which, even more than "Dungeons & Discords" last season, is the exact kind of silly, endearing romp which caused me to fall in love with this show in the first place, and it also sees the show at its most controlled and polished. More of this, please. Way more of this.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Episode reviews: "Celestial Advice" / "All Bottled Up"

At long last, the two-parter is dead. Season 7 is the first My Little Pony season to open with two entirely disconnected episodes, and while they aired on the same day and share a (very) small degree of continuity, for all intents and purposes these are two different episodes, neither of which shares even the skeleton of an epic adventure plot. The formula is finally, finally gone, and so here's two episode reviews for the price of one: "Celestial Advice," which boasts novelty and continuity but lacks much going on or a conflict I have any interest in, and "All Bottled Up," which drags a good moral and some solid ideas through a relatively tired conflict. Neither are terribly exciting, and "All Bottled Up" is rather tedious, but while both are a massive step down from season 6's "The Crystalling," they both have points of merit and serve as a fresh change of pace for the show.