It's always the ones you don't expect, isn't it?
Last season, I was surprised to enjoy "28 Pranks Later," a fairly messy episode that was nonetheless made enjoyable by a handful of solid jokes and a decently creepy atmosphere. From the synopsis, it seemed likely to have a mean-spirited, vindictive tone, but unlike the similar "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well," it used its plot as an excuse to have some funny visual gags and indulge in zombie tropes rather than wasting time humiliating Rainbow Dash for some anachronistic wrong. It was far from perfect, but it was the season's most pleasant surprise.
"It Isn't the Mane Thing About You" is less funny than "28 Pranks Later," but it's every bit as surprising. Despite its inherently awkward premise, the episode almost entirely avoids cringe comedy, and while what gags it does offer are mostly pedestrian, the episode's story structure recalls the show's earliest seasons in a good way. This is a story which gives itself time to breathe, which allows itself to be simple but relatable, which seems to understand the show's original charms. If only it were funnier, it would feel like a genuine return to form. Still, this is surprisingly pleasant!
When Rarity is being considered for the cover of a popular fashion magazine, she visits Pinkie Pie for event preparations just to find the latter celebrating the anniversary of the Cake kids' first sneeze. Much to her dismay, Rarity leaves this encounter with Silly String sticking to her mane, and the two visit Zecora in search of a natural cure. Zecora gives them one hair growth potion and one hair removal potion, but unfortunately Rarity grabs the wrong one and inadvertently destroys her hair even further. Lacking any way to instantaneously regrow hair, Rarity then needs to continue with her preparations while hiding her now-bald head.
As said, this seems like prime territory for cringe comedy. It could have shown Rarity going to desperate lengths to get things done while hiding her head, and that would have been nearly unbearable. Instead, though, "It Isn't the Mane Thing About You" simply depicts Rarity attempting to get through a day of hair-related plans without any hair to show, and while she eventually descends into histrionics, the tone is surprisingly relaxed. At no point does she embarrass herself, and even when she's actively hiding her face, you never get the impression that it's particularly bothering anyone, and she never goes to excessive lengths to hide her identity.
There's even things this episode gets right which many others don't. This is one of the most low-stakes stories we've had in a while, and as such, it can pace itself out more without feeling unfocused. Like an early season episode, the story revolves around a somewhat fantastical yet still mundane problem, and it builds on this main premise without over-complicating it or smothering it in superfluous elements. It still could have used a couple digressions, but overall the episode has comparatively relaxed pacing, which supplies a little bit of charm.
In fact, "charming" is perhaps the best descriptor of the episode overall. Despite having a humour focus, it's somewhat sparse for jokes, relying a lot on inherently humorous situations, and that will always be subjective. Personally, I don't find Rarity awkwardly trying to get things done without being noticed all that funny, and most of the other situations are similarly mundane. Probably the most joke-dense scene in the episode is when Rarity tries to get Twilight and Starlight to magically fix her castle, but even then there's only one joke: each hair replacement is transported from somewhere else, and quickly falls apart. It's all very mild humour, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it's not terribly exciting.
At the same time, there's a lot of small pleasant moments. It's nice to see Pinkie throwing a party for the Cake babies, it's nice to see Rarity's friends trying to help, and it's nice to see Zecora again. Rarity's plight is too simple to be particularly interesting, and at times she comes across as slightly self-absorbed, but everyone around her is written on top form, even if they're never called upon to do much. Pinkie's the only one who does as much as Rarity, and while her antics are a little familiar this she has a few funny scenes, like one early on where she reacts to Zecora trying to nag her. Even Starlight isn't so bad this week, as for once her bluntness actually stands out as a unique trait. She's still superfluous, seemingly present just for a weak reference to the season 5 finale, but here she at least mostly stays out of the way.
Really, the worst part is the cold open, which goes on for three endless minutes of clumsy foreshadowing before the theme song kicks in. Thankfully, each scene is a little improved from the last, and by the time the episode returns to Ponyville's market street, the shaky parts of the first half have all but vanished. This is especially true of the episode's wonderful ending, starting when Rarity enlists Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Applejack for help. The funniest scenes in the entire episode come from these three trying to give Rarity a makeshift wig: Applejack's is attached to a bonnet, Rainbow's is made of clouds, and Fluttershy's is assembled out of shrubbery by her animal friends. In each case, the issue is obvious, but it leads to the sight of Rarity leaving her cloud wig behind when she walks away, which has got to be worth something.
Finally, she cancels her photo shoot, and her friends stop by to break her out of her funk. In particular, it's nice to see Applejack being stern without coming across as rude or inflexible, and seeing Rainbow act primarily out of compassion without a note of egotism is incredibly refreshing even if she doesn't have much to do. Finally, Rarity's friends remind her of how much she's accomplished and how much she means to them, which encourages her to make the most of the situation. In the episode's denouement, Rarity combs what remaining hair she has into a makeshift mohawk, complete with multicoloured dye and a studded jacket, and it looks fantastic.
In the cold open, Rarity inspired a few fashion shops to offer new services, and in the middle we see her unable to make use of them because she's hiding her face. Finally, in the ending, we get to see her doing a little more to help out around town. She gives Filthy Rich her leftover flowers, provides some further advice for a local fan store, and... uh... buys a new couch. Okay, that last one fits less, but it's a nice moral: all you need is a little confidence, and you can still be the best version of you in a bad situation. Even when all your plans are ruined, you can still make the best of what you have. Plus, the episode goes out with Rarity saving Pinkie from an overflowing bubble bath, so that's a plus, and Rarity even gets on the magazine cover anyway due to her friends pulling a few strings. Altogether, this ending is filled with delights.
In many ways, "It Isn't the Mane Thing About You" demonstrates My Little Pony finally regaining an understanding of what once made it work. In tone, story structure, and characterization, this episode recalls the show's best years, and while the conflict and jokes still need a lot of work to reach those heights, there's a lot to like here. At worst, it's watchable and inoffensive, and at best it's as charming as anything else this season, and that's a lot more than I can say for many other episodes. So, again, it's not unlike "28 Pranks Later": decidedly flawed and occasionally boring, but with way, way more charm than I would ever have expected. It's always nice to be pleasantly surprised by this show.
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