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.

When Twilight helps some kids work through a disagreement, she's reminded of her old friendship journal, and decides it might be worthwhile to release it to the masses. The book becomes a hit, and while her friends are initially delighted, they soon find that much of the new attention given to them is less than desirable. Deeply bothered by this development, Twilight frets over how to solve their problem.

There's not much of an arc to "Fame and Misfortune." Once we're confronted with the initial problem - people who read the friendship journal being creepy and aggressive - there's not much story left to tell, and fair portion of the running time is dedicated to just seeing the various ways in which these ponies are being obnoxious. We see them harassing Fluttershy. We see them crowding Rainbow Dash. We see them laughing inappropriately at Pinkie Pie. In the final third of the episode, Twilight starts to wonder if she made a mistake by publishing the journal, but she doesn't really act on that until the very end, when the mane six counters the townsponies' complaints by singing about how they have flaws, like everybody else.

And, to be fair, they have a point. If I compare season 7 to season 5, I find I much prefer the former season's attempt to give the mane six meaningful flaws to the latter's efforts to scrub those flaws away. As someone who's often argued in favour of their flaws in season 6, I should have some appreciation for this moral, but it's just a bit too didactic for me. The way the episode spends most of its time detailing different types of unpleasant fans feels, like many other episodes this season, just a bit too on-the-nose, and as a result I don't have a lot of fun with it.

The thing is, I think I would have had more fun with the episode if it hadn't dedicated so much time to ridiculing this behaviour. I rather enjoyed the early parts, where humour was primarily derived from the personalities of the characters, and any scene where Pinkie Pie just goofs around is as fun as it's always been, but any of those scenes where the mane six are being stalked, or are frustrated that their morals are being criticized, or are otherwise simply reacting to someone else being unpleasant are much less enjoyable, because there the focus is on behaviour which is already clearly meant to come across as unpleasant, so there's not much levity to latch on to.

Initially, I was fairly aggravated by how the episode seemed to regard criticism, but I think that was an overreaction. Taking a step back and applying a bit of context, it becomes clear that scenes such as the one where Fluttershy is being tormented for "learning the same lesson over and over again" have just as much to do with harassment of writers as with general criticism. I know that's something which happens, so I can't blame the crew for wanting to bite back at it. That's also what was probably intended with later scenes where the townsponies crowd Twilight's castle, as is made clear from just one look at how aggressive these ponies are with their complaints, not to mention the fact that they've decided to shout them at the source rather than keep them to themselves and their friends.

But I think the episode focuses too much on specific criticisms. Returning to that Fluttershy scene, for instance, it attempts to argue with a common point that Fluttershy episodes tend to revolve around the same ideas, making it seem like she never develops. It attempts to refute this claim by saying that people won't always be able to internalize a lesson after only learning it once, and while that's fair, it's still true that most of Fluttershy's stories up until season 6 revolved around her being scared, and that the variations between them were often very subtle. Even if the writers don't agree with these criticisms, it's not like they're invalid, and attacking your critics isn't a good look.

What bewilders me more about this scene is that it's an issue which the show has actually made steps to fix, and Fluttershy's characterization in this very episode would not be possible if the show hadn't taken those criticisms to heart. It's Fluttershy who talks back to these harassers, and aside from initially curling up into a ball when we first see her being harassed, she doesn't display the cowardice or shyness which made her episodes feel repetitive in the show's middle seasons. The episode is refuting a criticism which is no longer relevant, and I'd be quite confused to learn that people still make that claim after season 6.

The first sign that the journal might not be received exactly as Twilight intended is when she meets collectors who bought the book simply to preserve it and resell it later when its value increases, and these are the funniest of the episode's collection of weirdos simply because one, they have the most organic dialogue, and two, they're the most unexpected of the lot. You can see why Twilight might be less than pleased with that, but the next ponies she meets are simply criticizing Rarity among themselves because they think she took too much credit for an event, and I think the mane six ought to have expected that. If you're gonna put something even that autobiographical out to the public, it shouldn't be surprising when people make judgments about you from it.

Furthermore, these ponies aren't bothering the mane six with their opinions, so I don't see how that fits the subtext about fans being too aggressive with their responses to the show. Of the surprisingly wide variety of morals offered here, I think this best fits the implied thread that people will always criticize your work and you just need to deal with it, but I don't think the episode puts much emphasis on how the mane six should deal with criticism, and that makes scenes like this feel unbalanced. Similarly, if the episode at large is supposed to be a metaphor for My Little Pony fandom, then I think featuring a few adults who are actually respectful to the mane six would make it feel a bit more fair. The episode initially made me defensive, and while I no longer think that was entirely reasonable, I still think this episode could have done more to feel less mean-spirited towards its own audience.

Another issue is that I don't think the friendship journal works very well as a 1:1 parallel for the show. For one thing, the way the dialogue is written sounds like criticism of a story, whereas the lessons given in that journal are all based on what are (in-universe) real events. When characters are shouting at Fluttershy or Twilight, they don't really sound like they're talking about something presented as an advice book with context from real events, and aside from being rather distracting, that lack of subtlety just isn't very sophisticated. Applejack's issue, which is that ponies have begun trying to join her family, is less conspicuous in this regard, but it's still more disturbing than particularly funny.

Thankfully that song at the end is delightful, and although the musical number relies a bit too much on imagery of the ponies standing in a line in front of a simple background, parts also have a lovely pop-up book motif which makes up for the more dull shots, and the song itself elevates the entire sequence, with a catchy hook and solid, reasonably insightful lyrics about how one needs to take a person't flaws with their virtues. I might need a little more distance from my initial overreaction to really listen to it on its own, but unlike many other songs from the past few seasons, I can easily imagine myself doing that.

When I first started reviewing My Little Pony episodes, I did so because it was something I found fun. I liked looking at this innocent cartoon and analyzing its hidden depths, and this is still something I get a kick out of when there's an episode I really like. But it's not as much fun when I don't find the broader strokes of the episode very entertaining, and while "Fame and Misfortune" has a lot going on, I didn't enjoy watching it a whole lot, and that's not something I'm happy about. I've been very critical of season 7, and it's often just been because I'm not having much fun. The subtext that I used to enjoy picking out is usually pretty explicit nowadays, and that can be fun to critique and analyze in its own way, but it also makes picking through a tedious episode less rewarding. I've tried to be fair to "Fame and Misfortune," but even interpreted in the most charitable light, I just don't find this kind of story especially fun.

Maybe it has a point, though. I've been awfully grumpy about the show lately, and I'm not having as much fun writing about it as I used to.

Maybe I should take a break.

Entertainment: 3/10
Characters: 6/10
Themes: 5/10
Story: 4/10
Overall: 45/100

That's way higher than I was expecting. See, I keep telling you that overanalyzing this show makes me like it more. 

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