This show needs direction.
I've been saying that for a while. The show has become increasingly scattershot and inconsistent since as far back as season 5, and nobody involved seems to actually understand what to do with the main cast. These past three seasons have all been heavily reliant on new characters, heavy-handed moralizing, and various other crutches - anything to give them an excuse to not actually consider what direction the main characters should go in.
This show has never been serialized, but there used to be certain recurrent themes and clear character arcs. I don't think that's been the case for a while now, and the show has been flailing since season 5. In season 5, the writers tried to compensate by straining for pathos every other episode. Season 6 softened the blow with an endless supply of freewheeling experimentation. But there's a sense of obligation to season 7, like the writers are simply going down a checklist, and even the best episodes ride on the back of easy premises and filled-in blanks. Far too often, characters act as vessels for the moral rather than the other way around, and the show's desperate efforts to do anything other than develop the main characters are more feeble here than ever before.
What the My Little Pony crew forgets is that growing up doesn't mean throwing away the past entirely. The newer seasons are much more intricate than the earlier seasons, but this hasn't always been a change for the better, and few of these new writers seem to understand how to make these characters sing.
To start off, let's return to a point I made halfway through the season, back in May: is the show still single-minded and stodgy? Honestly, I'm not sure I'd say that. There are definitely some episodes in the back half which indulge in digressions - "Not Asking for Trouble," "Triple Threat," "Once Upon a Zeppelin," et cetera. - and even though there's still a fair few which are a little stiff (notably, "Daring Done?" and "Marks and Recreation"), the second half is much looser, if still not especially satisfying. The show is still excessively moralistic, however, and alongside the aforementioned stiff episodes, even more humorous episodes like "A Health of Information" and "Once Upon a Zeppelin" are tediously insistent on expressing their main theme.
But I think a bigger problem I've seen this season is that the show doesn't work very hard to justify its story beats. One of the worst examples is still "A Royal Problem," which is heavily reliant on the notion that Celestia and Luna's arguments are a danger to Equestria, but which never gives us any reason to accept this as true. But this is also a problem nearly every time the show introduces a new character. In "To Change a Changeling," why should I care about Pharynx returning? In "Marks and Recreation," what possible reason could I have to be invested in Rumble? Season 6 frequently gave texture and nuance to its characters, but in season 7, every new face follows the same formula: an attitude, a belief, and a connection to ground that belief, and these traits are frequently revealed through verbal exposition.
Pharynx is aggressive. Pharynx believes the Hive needs better security. Pharynx, we are soon told, used to protect Thorax when they were young. Similarly, Rumble is charismatic. Rumble hates cutie marks. Rumble, we are later told, actually just wants to be like his brother. It's a formula which clearly wants to evoke sympathy, but which relies too much on exposition and not enough on character development. To be fair, though, season 7 has far fewer new characters than other recent seasons, and in some cases even adds a little more detail to characters we're familiar with. "To Change a Changeling" adds detail to Thorax's past, "Triple Threat" makes Ember significantly more distinctive than she was prior, and "A Royal Problem" does a great job of making the princess sisters feel human.
Further, half of the new characters it does introduce tie into one of the season's greatest strengths, which is developing the mane six's family members. None of "Parental Glideance," "The Perfect Pear," or "Once Upon a Zeppelin" are perfect, but all three excel in the offbeat charms they give their protagonists. "Glideance" and "Zeppelin," in particular, depict their respective new faces in unexpected and distinctive ways, and while "Perfect Pear" is a bit blander, it does a great job of crafting endearingly decent individuals with sympathetic issues. Even outside of the new characters, Maud has her best appearance yet in "Rock Solid Friendship," and both Cadance and Shining Armour have their moments in the aforementioned "Zeppelin" as well as the glorious "A Flurry of Emotions."
The humour is also a bit less strained in the latter half, but that's in part because many episodes simply have less of it. Some episodes, like "Fame and Misfortune" and "It Isn't the Mane Thing About You," heavily base their humour on scenarios which the audience is expected to find inherently funny, and others like "Campfire Tales," "Marks and Recreation," and "Uncommon Bond" simply don't have that many gags to begin with. There's also a higher quantity of genuinely funny episodes, like "Discordant Harmony" and "A Health of Information," but in some cases even these are offset by narrative clumsiness. "To Change a Changeling" is brought down by a directionless storyline, whereas "Secrets and Pies" is fundamentally asinine in ways which lessen the fun somewhat.
Worse still is the show's increasing focus on dreary, unimaginative world building. As buildup to its finale, season 7 focused on characters called the "Pillars," but each of these are taken from simplistic tales inspired heavily by real-world mythology and grafted haphazardly onto the show's existing mythos. This is the closest the show has come to outright serialization, but we barely get to know the "Pillars," and their relationship with the mane six is generally superficial and impersonal. "Shadow Play" is arguably the show's least interesting finale, and while a lot of that comes from it rehashing the same formula beats established back in the early seasons, it also relates to an overly serious emphasis on the increasingly dull setting.
At the very least, these stories are confined to three episodes, but they also speak to the show's unfortunate focus on predictable, externally driven conflicts. While there are still some gems like "A Health of Information" and "Once Upon a Zeppelin" where conflicts are derived from insecurities or character flaws, the show hasn't let up on narratives driven entirely by new characters or even faceless mobs. "Fame and Misfortune" is up there with "Fluttershy Leans In" as one of the most blatant examples, but other episodes like "Daring Done?" and "Marks and Recreation" suffer from the same problem. And while the formula beats are less transparent in these episodes, they still don't deviate far from what we've come to expect from this show.
A lot of these impersonal episodes star the mane six, and those mane six episodes which do have some internal conflict tend to be simplistic or obvious. Consider, for instance, "It Isn't the Mane Thing About You," which involves nothing deeper than Rarity accidentally damaging her mane. Sure, it completely throws off her plans, but the episode is still focused enough on the damaged mane that Rarity's insecurity feels banal. Similarly, "Secrets and Pies" tells such a juvenile story that it makes everyone involved feel uncharacteristically immature. Even in episodes with a little more oomph, the writing can be awkward. "A Health of Information" makes Fluttershy weirdly hyper and Twilight weirdly relaxed, and while "Once Upon a Zeppelin" features some of the season's best characterization, Twilight's entire role in that episode is restricted to serving the moral.
On the other hand are Spike and Starlight. The former is fairly underrepresented, but his appearances are mostly solid, and he's sympathetic in his only focus episode. Starlight, on the other hand, continues to lack distinguishing traits. The best I can figure out is that she's vaguely sarcastic, emotionally somewhat immature, and has trouble considering how her actions affect others. Sometimes, she carries a somewhat grounded air, but that feels inconsistent with her season 6 characterization, and because she has so few personality traits, she often just becomes bland. Further, the show keeps telling us to like her, but her episodes are almost never grounded enough to really explore her insecurities. "All Bottled Up" and "Uncommon Bond" make attempts, but even there, her personality appears to be dictated by the moral.
All of Starlight's appearances come across like part of a checklist, and she can often feel shoehorned into episodes which she adds nothing to. There's no reason for her to be in "Fame and Misfortune," and only a joke or two would be lost if she were absent from "Triple Threat." The latter, as well as "To Change a Changeling," suggest she's a skilled manipulator, but this trait is absent from the rest of the season. At other times, she wallows in self-pity, but because as recently as "A Royal Problem" she was making dubious judgment calls, this feels unearned. Further, while she's praised for being snarky, this is largely because the mane six have lost a lot of their sass from the early seasons. Season 7 continues to return flaws to those characters, but they're often lacking some of the nuance they possessed even a single season ago, and Starlight hardly suffices as a replacement. And given that Starlight has more episodes than anyone else - six in total, almost all of which are mediocre to subpar - this soon became exhausting. At least Twilight's still great.
Some have commented that the show is "delivering things fans have long asked for," but at what cost? To justify my starting comment about the show going down a checklist, I'd like to compare the season's trend of answering fan demands with its frequently simplistic storytelling. In "Fluttershy Leans In," Fluttershy is finally given a goal... and completes it within a single episode without a shred of self-doubt. In "Daring Done?," we finally get to see Daring Do struggle with an internal conflict... only for it to be dismissed entirely by the end of the episode. In "Marks and Recreation," we finally see someone who doesn't want a cutie mark... which induces zero self-doubt in the CMC, and is ultimately shown to be deflection. Time and time again, the show emphasizes a specific moral over the most interesting implications of a premise, as if it's trying to get these demands out of the way without actually putting in the legwork to make them satisfying.
And excepting Twilight, none of the main characters consistently experience fresh challenges. Most of the mane six and Starlight have at least one unique story, but only Starlight in "A Royal Problem" is actually given some insight, whereas Pinkie in "Rock Solid Friendship," Rarity in "Forever Filly," and Rainbow in "Parental Glideance" have their fairly sympathetic concerns buried under a largely antagonistic role. Increasingly, the mane six have become the external force which act on secondary characters, and there's something genuinely dispiriting about having the characters I actually care about in this show dismissed in this way. It doesn't have to be like this. "The Perfect Pear" stands out as a particularly strong example, as the main conflict occurs in flashback to new characters whom might not even be alive anymore, with the actual main characters only being present to hear about these events secondhand. At least that episode is good enough to get away with it.
Even the worst seasons of My Little Pony have their decent episodes, and this one isn't without it's gems. I enjoyed relatively little of season 7 - 40%, by my count, and I only consider around half of that genuinely great - but the inconsistency is something I have been putting up with for a while, even if this is perhaps the worst it's ever gotten. What bothers me more is the stasis, the refusal of the show to challenge itself or experiment. The show has stagnated for four whole seasons now, and even seasons 4 and 6, which I liked, didn't move the show forward as much as they could have. That I could handle as well. But season 7 is both stale and uneven, when I find both qualities to be the worst they've ever been in this show, and I'm not sure how much longer I can stand by it.
40% enjoyed. Average of scores: 59/100
Next week: My top 10 least favourite episodes!