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Season 7 midway reflections

AlexanderThrond

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God damn it.



My Little Pony has been in decline since season 3. While I still have a soft spot for the third season, its short length and terrible finale were a step down from prior seasons, and in the years after, the show struggled to achieve the strength of its early years. To me, though, season 6 moved away from that decline, showing a willingness to experiment and adding a satisfying new element in the form of Starlight Glimmer. But rather than continue what worked in season 6, season 7 has resumed the show's fall from grace, and thus far is quite possibly my least favourite season yet.

Like season 5, my first issue is simply a lack of quality control. This time around, only four of the eleven episodes broadcast so far have been good. While this show has always been uneven in quality, most past seasons have at least been enjoyable most of the time, but season 7 has been consistently disappointing, and often for many of the same reasons.

Last year, My Little Pony suffered from the occasional episode which seemed to write its story entirely around a moral, character consistency and good humour be damned. Rather than backing off from these simple, formulaic stories, however, the show has attempted to smooth over the cracks. The main conflicts of episodes are often very simple, and always have specific goals in mind which everything else is bent towards. In episodes like "Forever Filly" and "A Royal Problem," not one scene goes by which doesn't serve the plot, and especially in the former's case, the result is stories which have little breathing room for the character moments or silly gags which made this show fun in the first place. Characters are still bent to the plot, but this time the show makes an effort to explain their actions, and yet that only contributes to the feeling of single-mindedness which plagues so many episodes this season.

Unlike season 5, the issue isn't necessarily that the show takes itself too seriously, but that the actual humour tends to be forced and irritating. Because most of these episodes are focused exclusively on their storyline, the vast majority of the show's humour is based on noisy characterization, as in "Rock Solid Friendship" or "Honest Apple" or really the vast majority of episodes this season. So many of these episodes revolve around a character acting irritatingly, whether it's Trixie, Applejack, Pinkie, or even Rarity. Even in better episodes like "Parental Glideance," humour is derived from the exact same source of one character acting in a way which irritates another, the only difference being that the tone is lighter and the visual gags are stronger. In most other cases, many visual gags are surprisingly weak, and those which do succeed are often hurt by the context of one character irritating another.

All of which might have been more acceptable if the actual stories told were a little more inventive, but most of them feel formulaic. Most episodes end in the most predictable way possible: Of course Maud is in danger out of Ponyville. Of course Rarity overhears a moral from Sweetie Belle. Of course Applejack makes an effort to save Rarity's fashion show. The show has attempted to evolve in so many ways, and yet it falls back on all the same story structures, and often the same single story structure of one character irritating another until something bad happens and they learn to stop. This is "All Bottled Up," "Rock Solid Friendship," "Forever Filly," "Hard to Say Anything," and "Honest Apple," nearly half of the season. Others, like "Celestial Advice" and "Fluttershy Leans In," lack much plot at all, and struggle to muster up enough humour to justify that.

Furthermore, because these episodes are all so laser-focused on their morals, they often struggle to feel organic, and that's before considering episodes like "Celestial Advice" and "Fluttershy Leans In" which seem to exist only because the writers feel some sense of obligation. "Forever Filly" and "Hard to Say Anything" both have chunks of backstory exposited at the beginning which were never set up prior, "Honest Apple" revolves around Rarity making the very dubious choice to let Applejack judge fashion, and "A Royal Problem" revives the dreaded Cutie Map. Combine that with just how simple the plots of certain episodes are, and it can feel like the writers gave little attention to anything other than what's absolutely necessary to their moral. This means there aren't too many unnecessary scenes, but it also leaves these episodes dull and lacking in personality.

While the show attempts to give some depth to each focus character, most of the mane six have yet to grow a whole lot, and character beats range from insufficiently established (Fluttershy wanting to build a sanctuary, Rarity growing distant from Sweetie Belle) to seemingly redundant (Pinkie giving others space, Applejack learning to appreciate fashion). It's often hard to relate to these character beats, and while Rainbow Dash gets by a lot better, her one episode doesn't appear to recognize how sympathetic and relatable her situation is. There's a feeling that the creative team isn't comfortable with these characters, and although each episode includes details which attempt to justify the focus character's behaviour, these often feel just as inorganic as the character beats.

On top of that, many of these story ideas echo popular episodes of prior seasons enough that without sufficient buildup they feel like retreads of past glories, despite often differing from those prior episodes. Rather than developing Pinkie's other sisters, we get to see Maud again. Rather than further exploring her business, we get another episode about Rarity and her sister. Rather than exploring fresh, new dynamics, we get the Rarity/Applejack team up again. Apply the same to Big Mac in a romantic setting, Fluttershy asserting herself, Starlight screwing up, et cetera. The season does further develop characters like Princess Celestia and Flurry Heart, but this development is often still heavily confined to what little is relevant to the moral and main plot. The one thing which the season does that's truly a breath of fresh air is ditching the two-part premiere formula, but it failed to offer an adequate replacement.

Still, this is easily Twilight's best season since becoming an Alicorn. While "Celestial Advice" continued the trend of restricting her to a princess/mentor role, subsequent episodes have made a heroic effort of reviving the traits which made her so endearing in the first two seasons and giving them new context. In "A Flurry of Emotions," her dual status as a Princess and an aunt inspires her tendency to put high expectations on herself, and in "A Royal Problem" we see her unhealthy worship of Celestia and her tendency towards extreme panic. The latter episode also provides the closest thing we've yet gotten to nuance in her relationship with Starlight, as Twilight's own worrying ultimately provokes Starlight's anxieties. Twilight was once my favourite character, so this return to form is genuinely thrilling.

But that brings us to Starlight, the real elephant in the room. As with Josh Haber last season, showrunners Joanna Lewis & Kristine Songco have decided to primarily write episodes revolving around her, and with none of her appearances so far handled by a new writer, there's a general impression that she's the character the old writers care most about. On one hand, this is a problem because it's previously had a generally negative impact on the main six, but it's also a problem because Starlight is such a bland character that she might benefit from the fresh perspective that a new writer could bring. Starlight's increased separation from the main six makes her feel more like a replacement than ever, and yet she doesn't bring anything fresh to the show. While her new friendships feel genuine, the self-doubt and underdeveloped morality which made her so novel in season 6 are rapidly vanishing, and she still lacks any distinguishing traits to replace them.

Part of this is season 6's fault for failing to develop her beyond her specific story arc that season, but as with the main six, season 7 isn't willing to fix its predecessor's issues, and instead is content to include Starlight in stories which she doesn't feel like she belongs in. Her apperance in "Rock Solid Friendship" is deeply conspicuous, and "A Royal Problem" includes her in a conflict which she has so little personal attachment to that the Cutie Map needed to send her. Every single one of her focus episodes feels like ticking off a checklist, and she's yet to have a single low-key slice-of-life which doesn't inevitably feel like it's forcing her character arc. There aren't any episodes where she exists as a minor character in someone else's story, and when she does appear next to the main six, it only highlights that she simply lacks many unique traits.

Maybe all of this is because of the show's limitations. Since so many stories have now been told with the main six, the only way to tell new morals is to force them in some way or another. In some cases, that's imposing new character dynamics on the old characters, whereas in others it's shoving Starlight into stories where she doesn't fit. But I don't buy that. People don't stop growing, and if you have as strong a set of characters as My Little Pony has, there's no reason that new morals shouldn't be able to come naturally from the ponies' personalities. It shouldn't need to be this forced. I can't really say why this season in particular has gone so wrong, but after season 6 moved so far in the right direction, all of these steps backwards are nothing short of heartbreaking. 


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