Having just finished watching the season 6 double-episode premier, I will now detail my thoughts on it. This will likely not be well understood by most readers.
It was only recently that I considered reading up on others’ opinions about this show. To my dismay it seemed that the general consensus on sites like Equestria Daily and the MLP wiki was that the quality estimations of each season were in a near perfectly inverse relationship with my own – I loved the first three seasons, liked the 4th, and had mixed feelings about the 5th. Being one to overthink things, I started working to articulate exactly what it was that made those seasons great, and what caused the shift in the later episodes.
I feel I could go into quite a bit of depth about the humor and charm that brought me into the orbit of this cartoon, but perhaps one succinct explanation would be that it transcended its original design. Ostensibly it was meant to teach children about basic manners and social concepts, but the process by which it reached this end exhibited a surprising level of intellectual refinement. There was a subtlety to the humor both in the writing and in the animation, its appreciation gated from those who didn’t have the personal experiences to relate to it. Each episode would have a basic storyline and end in a basic lesson, but the interactions that occurred in between produced something much more compelling. I got the sense that the people writing and animating had to be on that higher level - that as individuals, they and I understood what made this sort of humor work. It’s been this assumed connection – that we are just sharing good jokes through the medium of a cartoon – that has really compelled me to watch this show ad nauseam. When it’s good – and it often is – I really truly love it.
Season five – particularly the last few episodes, which is when I first started watching the series – featured some small but distinct departures from this winning formula. It took me a while to notice at first but the most prominent characteristic of these changes is that there was a little less subtlety, not only in the jokes themselves but in basic plot exposition and even the animations. The writers were spelling more things out and the animators were getting more detailed; these are not inherently bad things per se, but they were taking away from the bulk of the show’s core interest – for me, at least – and adding nothing in exchange. I would give an example from season 5, but to put a finer point on it I’ll take from the season 6 premier to show the most recent point on the downward curve. When the Mane 6 arrive at the Crystal Empire, they exit the train to find Shining Armor in poor form, suffering from a lack of sleep due to their new baby. At this point it’s been established that he has a newborn child, so when Twilight first bumps into the bedraggled Shining Armor I immediately made the connection – newborn child keeps him awake, he gets little sleep, he acts sloppily; the Mane 6 probably haven’t thought about this, so their reasonable expectations of his behavior will differ from his actual reasonable behavior – humor! Now, hopefully it’s obvious that reading that last sentence out loud to someone as a joke would not go well. You could make it less funny by describing cliché sleepy behavior, because you’re just needlessly prolonging the joke and making his behavior seem more contrived; nothing new or compelling is added because the listener is probably already aware of the cliché behavior, since it’s cliché. This, however, is exactly what happens – Shining Armor acts in a manner very cliché for someone who is deprived of sleep, after which it is immediately explained that the baby has been keeping him and his wife awake. Compare this with season one’s Party of One, where there is a similar scenario of reasonable expectations contrasting sharply with reasonable behavior. In the scene after Pinkie Pie convinces herself that her friends don’t like her parties and don’t want to be her friends anymore, she is having a tea party with several inanimate objects when Rainbow Dash enters to invite her to a surprise party. The connection here is not only very subtle but also requires a certain level of experience and intellect to full appreciate: Pinkie Pie copes with her erroneous assumption by mis-attributing human (or uh, pony) characteristics onto these inanimate objects, thereby filling the social role that went missing when her friends supposedly left her. Rainbow Dash enters, completely unaware of the assumptions Pinkie has made, which provides the contrasting but reasonable perspective on Pinkie’s behavior. At no point is any of this spelled out in the dialogue; it is used solely as a setup for the very clever interactions between Pinkie Pie (which includes the inanimate objects) and Rainbow Dash. In my opinion, it’s one of the best scenes in the series to date.
The thing is, cartoons and children’s shows can get away with a lack of subtlety because the people in their intended audience haven’t had the years of experience for these things to be cliché to them; in fact, most of these things are considered cliché because of cartoons, which exaggerate normal behaviors to help children identify them. And that’s really my point here: MLP:FiM seems to be turning fully to its original label as a children’s show. I’m holding off more permanent judgement for when the season proper has had some time to show its material, but if it’s more of the same then my brief and thoroughly enjoyable walk with the show has come to an end. I realize I have no right to complain or demand – I’m here by happy coincidence, and the writers’ obligation is to their target audience. That said, I don’t think I’m wrong in making a connection with the show’s original vision and my own tastes. To put it in a slightly more annoying way, it wasn’t convergent evolution – we started off with the same conceptual ancestors. It just seems that the studio is making a long-term shift to a path I have no interest in retreading.
I sincerely hope that my worst fears do not come true, and that this episode’s writer simply fell asleep at the wheel. There are actually more criticisms I have of this episode that are separate from what I’ve talked about, such as the strange voice acting for the old pony, the pacing of the plot (it was almost unbearable for me), and a few other smaller things that combine to make this easily my least favorite episode – or dual-episode – to date. To me it just simply is not good story-telling, and I eagerly hope next week brings it back up to standard.