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.

When Pinkie Pie learns that Rainbow Dash didn't eat a pie she prepared, she realizes that she's never actually seen Rainbow eat one of her pies, and sets out on an investigation to find out the truth. Once she does, she sets up an operation to get Rainbow to admit that she never ate Pinkie's pies.

On one hand, "Secrets and Pies" is as dumb as a bag of hammers. It stretches an exceedingly simple premise out to 22 minutes through extended scenes of rambling, and its entire problem is based on poor communication which seems uncharacteristic of the mane six in season 7. If Rainbow doesn't feel comfortable telling Pinkie that she doesn't like her pies, what does that say about their relationship? And if Pinkie isn't willing to just ask Rainbow what's going on, what does that say about her? Once again, Rainbow needs to be told what she was doing wrong, and once again, Pinkie treats even the smallest break in communication like the biggest deal ever. It's a distracting example of the ponies acting like small children, which is disappointing, because I've always considered the relative maturity of these characters to be a large part of this show's appeal.

It's also such an unexciting, mundane dilemma. So what if Rainbow doesn't like the pies? This doesn't tell us anything new about the characters, and because the dilemma is so childish, the fact that everyone involves takes it so seriously makes the episode feel unusually juvenile. Perhaps that still has some value for the target audience, but it's not as compelling for older audiences. Further, because there's not a whole lot of story to wring out of this issue, the episode is constantly repeating itself. We see Rainbow disposing of pies about seven different times, and while Pinkie visits three different sites looking for clues, they all follow more or less the same formula of Pinkie grilling a nearby pony while acting incredulous. That's not even getting into the detours around the middle of the episode, including one which takes place entirely in Pinkie's imagination without giving any new information.

But I have a hard time seeing "entering Pinkie's imagination" as a bad thing, and it leads to a really fun scene where Rainbow is imagined as a crudely-sketched supervillain, complete with pointy wings, sharp teeth, and eye beams. This particular scene is still pretty silly, but it's far from the only humorous scene in the episode. Like "Discordant Harmony," it's filled with long scenes of hilarious riffing, including a great cold open which ends with Pinkie referring to her "mid-morning pie-making chocolate fuel which keeps this pie-baking train chugging down the tracks," and nearly all of the dialogue is similarly glorious. Other exciting gags include the ever-escalating ways in which Rainbow disposes of pies, which begin with her simply throwing it in the dumpster and reach such heights as catapulting it to an open window, calling upon a swarm of kids to steal it, and tossing it into an elaborate chute to feed to her pet. "Secrets and Pies" may be as dumb as a post, but it's also as sharp as a razor.

Even when there isn't a major gag to speak of, the episode is kept afloat by an almost exhausting supply of charm and energy. Despite the rough edges of characterization, Pinkie still has a lot of sweetness. For instance, she says she's celebrating Rainbow's 73rd anniversary of becoming a Wonderbolt simply because she couldn't wait any longer, and while that enhances her childishness, it's also pretty cute. Rainbow Dash also has some charming moments, especially near the end, where she reveals that she kept pretending to eat Pinkie's pies because she was afraid of hurting her friend's feelings. Again, that's rather childish, but it's just too sweet to be mad about, and there's a reasonable moral about honesty at the end as well, just for good measure.

Other moments are reliant entirely on general flow and visual quirkiness. For instance, the first transition between Cloudsdale and Pinkie's party cave is a silly reference to the '60s Batman TV show, complete with a pastiche of the sound effect used in the same program. Again, the episode is comprised mostly of Pinkie rambling, but she doesn't miss a single beat, and the few moments where she isn't talking are punctuated with hilarious cuts to, say Gummy blinking silently, or Pinkie herself dropping randomly from the sky. The voice actors are clearly having a blast, and their audible enthusiasm is infectious. And then there's slapstick scenes, like Spitfire "accidentally" crashing into Pinkie, or visual goofiness like Pinkie standing on a wobbling pyramid of pies.

In truth, explaining what makes this episode so fun would ultimately devolve into me listing every single gag in it. Unfortunately, some of these gags also become weirdly disturbing, like a late scene where we see Pinkie's eyes all dried up to the point that she needs to lick them to keep the moisturized. That's strange and creative, and I found it hilarious, but it's also gruesome in a way which doesn't mesh with the show's general aesthetic. Further, Rainbow feeding Tank all her pies is presented as Tank eating the entire tin whole, which then makes him sick and feels uncomfortably close to animal abuse. Combined with the juvenile storyline and character issues, that makes the whole episode just feel weirdly uncharacteristic of this show, and not necessarily in a good way.

And yet I just can't resist it. So, yes, call it a guilty pleasure, but it's a pleasure nonetheless. There's a lot of elements in "Secrets and Pies" which are downright bad, and from a narrative and structural standpoint there's not all that much to praise. Add in some off-putting aspects like Rainbow's treatment of Tank, and you should have a recipe for a subpar episode. But that dialogue is just glorious from top to bottom, the voice performances have an irresistible energy, and every single visual gag is fantastic, so it's hard for me to dismiss the episode entirely, or even at all. In my brain, I know it's not very good. But it's one of the few episodes this season which I'd watch again in a heartbeat.

Entertainment: 9/10
Characters: 5/10
Themes: 7/10
Story: 4/10
Overall: 63/100

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