TL;DR – The “jokes” in this episode feel more like out-of-character prolongations of already obvious story elements, more spectacle than actually clever. This seems to be the way the show is going, but isn’t what the original draw was.
I'll get right to the point – like the season 6 premier, The Gift of the Maud Pie doesn’t feel like a MLP:FiM episode to me. The storyline is fine – I mean, it’s based on a classic – and I actually appreciate the sentiment and Maud’s character development at the end when she confronts the guy about getting the party cannon back; the rest of the content, however, feels so uncharacteristic of the series before S06. I’d say the biggest derailment was with Rarity, who acted so far out of character it was painful to watch. For five seasons she had been built up as someone who, while having a tendency to be judgmental and given to frivolousness, has a keen sense of social discernment and emotional maturity, someone who is able to judge the sensitivities of any given situation and act appropriately. In this episode, however, her behavior was characterized primarily by shallow giddiness and clumsy oversight as she interacted with the other characters. Even Pinkie Pie seemed to forget what restraint and emotional maturity she’d established over the seasons, her willingness to sacrifice for her sister notwithstanding. Maud – and thank goodness – was really the only one who remained solidly in-character, and as such was the only character I related to and enjoyed. With the exception of Rarity’s impression of Pinkie, Maud’s were the only comedic moments I got anything out of: the stares of “disappointment”, Maud sense, and her attempt to trade back Pinkie’s party cannon… though that last one was sadly ruined when they had Rarity step out of character once more to reiterate the joke’s punchline several times for everyone. That was honestly a great setup for a quality joke, and would have put the otherwise obnoxious character addition to good use (the weird-looking ‘scoundrel’), but they short-circuited their opportunity by not letting the joke tell itself. Not out of place for a typical cartoon, but very out of place for MLP:FiM.
Let's compare scenes, one from this episode and one from Party of One - I know I used that episode in a comparison last week, but it really provides an excellent example in the comparison I want to make right here. The Gift of the Maud Pie features several scenes where Rarity and Pinkie Pie are trying to covertly coordinate on Pinkie's gift for Maud, one of which takes place at a restaurant where they resort to using the large folding menu to hide their conversation. At this point in the episode (pretty early on) it's been clearly established that they are trying to keep their gift-finding efforts a secret from Maud, and for obvious reasons. It is decided that Pinkie Pie will break from the meeting and get her planned gift from a nearby shop; however, she returns without the gift because the store was closed (which was actually a decent scene), so they decide to try finding a different gift. Excluding the intermediate closed store scene, most of the character interaction here focuses on emphasizing the fact that Rarity and Pinkie are trying to hide their plans from Maud – awkwardly distracting her, speaking very deliberately when lying to her, ordering a large dessert to hide their conversation, etc. The thing is, their want to keep Pinkie’s gift a secret is not only obvious from the story’s context but has also already been overtly stated in the dialogue and will continue to be in later scenes. As mentioned previously, Rarity and (to a lesser extent) Pinkie Pie have been established in the series as being fairly astute; their behaviors up to this point indicate a certain level of observance and discernment which has defined their characters and provided the foundation to the contrasts that generate the show's humor. Given how conspicuous their desire is to prevent Maud from knowing their plans just by understanding basic social context, it is highly out of character for them - especially Rarity - to belabor this point so heavily in their behavior and dialogue. They and I already understand why secrecy from Maud is important, and there is no need or benefit whatsoever in exploring or defending the idea further.
By contrast… in season 1's Part of One, there is a scene in which Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are trying to find an excuse to miss Pinkie Pie's party. The scene itself opens by working off of unspoken context: Pinkie Pie has invited them to her party (not actually part of the scene) and they, using the same insincere stalling technique as the other invitees, seem to be trying to skip out for the same reason – which hasn’t been revealed yet. There is no drawn-out monologue or unrealistically emphasized behavior to glorify the point because there is no need at all for it – it’s made abundantly clear by brief, indirect cues that count on the observer picking up on them. The writing proceeds on this assumption, allowing the dialogue to unfold naturally since the context and the two contrasting points of view – Pinkie Pie and the pegasus’ – have all been well established. The jokes that occur result from the obvious context; in TGotMP, the obvious context (that Rarity and Pinkie need to find a gift secretly) is the joke, at least in way too many scenes.
There are more red flags appearing that I want to address. Very much like where the Simpsons went, the show seems to be moving towards being a spectacle rather than making witty observations. One clear symptom of this is a change from “reasonable characters in absurd situations” to “absurd characters in reasonable situations”. The show needs to relate to the audience, something that is usually accomplished by having characters behave in ways the audience can relate to; the more this happens, the more invested they can get in the story and the more appreciable the humor can be. With good characterization, you can make a conflict where different characters act reasonably to themselves but behaviorally arrive at very different points, creating the “absurd situation”. For me this is the crux of the show’s humor, and of the humor in many other forms of entertainment I enjoy. Unfortunately the prevailing trend of season 6, at least so far, is to define the characters by a few simple traits and hyper-stylized personalities so that their behavior functions more as an instant attention grab – a spectacle – rather than a sort of clever counterpoint. So far the situations haven’t really called for this crazy behavior either, so it feels more contrived than natural.
On a brief side-note, I was also a little off-put by the sudden realism given to the party cannon. It’s pretty common in the show for objects to inexplicably appear and disappear for the sake of a joke, significantly more so with Pinkie Pie – heck, even her mouth went missing for a whole episode. As I said I like the concept of Maud facing the rough-looking fellow to get her sister’s treasured item back, but at the same time the cannon’s sudden change to a single, physical, indispensable object just seems contrived.
To reiterate a point from a previous post, I’m not saying these changes are necessarily bad. They fit well for a certain audience, one that the show is more generally expected to appeal to. It’s just that the change is so drastic and sudden that I feel caught off-guard – even some of the animations for main characters were significantly different from anything seen to date. The latter end of season 5 set off some minor red flags but for the most part maintained enough quality to finish off the year solidly enough; season 6 so far though, in my honest opinion, is basically a different show that I have no interest in whatsoever. I realize the writer situation is a bit wonky, especially with this episode, so I’m still holding some optimism for the weeks to come… but either way, as a fan I’m saddened that these are official entries in the series. They’re such a marked departure from the unique and successful style that has carried the series thus far and earned my sincere admiration.