I thought this series was done for.
By August of 2017 Equestria Girls had fallen so low that new content was being cheaply outsourced. A new series was reportedly on the horizon, but one look at the so-called "Summertime Shorts," which were so awkward and poorly-made that they almost resembled a bootleg version of the series, gave little reason to hope. Surely this was a series with nothing new to say, and which the company making it had no faith in. Some moderately satisfying music videos were being released at the same time, and yet, the simple fact that these were sharing space with such cheap junk was truly dispiriting.
The new series, which premiered on November 2nd on the "Discovery Family GO!" mobile app, didn't necessarily bring big changes to the series' aesthetic or narrative styles. In a lot of ways, it was doing the same things that My Little Pony had been doing for years. But none of it was cheaply outsourced, and moreover, one big thing was different. It would take a while to really become clear, but what the new Equestria Girls series finally brought to the table was a renewed sense of focus. All of the various identities which the series had grasped at over the years were finally synthesized into a coherent whole, there was a consistent focus on expanding the characters and the world, and best of all, this series was more consistently entertaining than either branch of My Little Pony has been in years. If it's not quite as substantial as the best My Little Pony stories, it does an incredibly satisfying job of setting the groundwork.
In all fairness, many of the things this new series does were first seen in those musical "Summertime Shorts." For all their simiplicity, those offered catchy songs which expanded on these characters, pushing them in directions which are different from their pony counterparts while still being recognizable. "Monday Blues" shows Sunset and Twilight's home lives, whereas "Shake Things Up" and "Coinky-Dink World" give Applejack and Pinkie, respectively, part-time jobs which are noticeably different from those of the pony versions of these characters. Much more than even the Equestria Girls movies, these shorts began to establish how these characters live their daily lives, and how they fit into the world around them.
Indeed, establishing those relationships is much of the appeal of the new Equestria Girls, which in its first season has found several inventive ways to fill in the details of its world while also establishing a consistent style. This new series contains both simple slice-of-life vignettes and more intense stories about magical threats, and what's most impressive about it is how cleanly the magical and mundane aspects of the series fit together. Frequently, the girls will use their superpowers for mundane purposes, and exploring the effects of Equestrian magic on the world is given equal weight to simply learning about the lives of the protagonists. Refreshingly, there's very little emphasis on monsters of the week, and in the first season, only two of the shorts address Equestrian magic in any serious way. Instead, that's mostly left for the longer "specials," which attempt to provide higher stakes and more thematic substance.
The series is more or less broken up into three different formats: one is the regular series of 3-minute shorts, another consists of interactive videos in which you can choose the ending, and the third comprises two 45-minute specials. The regular series features the least emphasis on continuity, but it also includes most of the significant additions to the series' characters and world. One titled "A Fine Line" establishes that some characters from Friendship is Magic aren't even real in the human world, whereas another titled "Display of Affection" introduces art as one of Sunset Shimmer's interests. Other episodes will simply create brief scenarios in which the characters can bounce off of each other and show off their charms, and yet others double down on the show's magical element to create more fantastical vignettes.
Perhaps the weakest entries in this series come from an ill-advised detour to a beach setting, which remains quirky and even offers a couple of genuinely funny shorts, but which also has moments of uncharacteristic cutesy pandering and generally less creative scenarios. The strongest, meanwhile, are divided in subject matter: "The Finals Countdown" and "So Much More to Me" are both incredibly catchy music numbers which have unusually solid lyrical themes for this show, whereas "A Little Birdie Told Me" and "Last Day of School" build great punchlines from these characters' personalities. The vast majority are set inside Canterlot High itself, and we even see the girls going to class every once in a while, as in the latter two aforementioned shorts. Even their band gets the occasional reference, as the short "Road Trippin' with Granny Smith" is specifically about the Rainbooms getting to a performance venue on time.
The show keeps a very loose timeline, which certainly make all of its disparate parts feel more cohesive, but it also presents scenarios in ways which make sense for the characters and the world. Magical problems come up only when they disrupt the Girls' lives, and most of the extracurricular activities seen are either simple enough to occur on weekends or specifically take place within the school. There's also vague hints of chronology: none of the shorts following "Last Day of School" actually takes place in the school, and all of them except "So Much More to Me" focus on the girls' jobs. Despite that, it's never entirely clear whether the Girls have these jobs during the school year or just in the summer, especially given that Rarity in particular still works even before the "Last Day of School" short, to the extent of getting something of a promotion.
The "chose-your-ending" series, meanwhile, is genuinely surprising in how effectively it uses the gimmick. Despite featuring two of the weakest episodes in "Text Support" and "Opening Night," an unexpected number of the endings are genuinely funny or sweet, and there's even a running plot in several of them. Essentially, these chronicle a play being put on by Canterlot High, and there are even certain elements of character progression throughout, most notably in the form of Fluttershy being cast in a supporting part. Most of the main characters get their own episode, and although Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash are left out, they're regularly featured in the various endings. Even in the aforementioned weaker instalments, the characters remain their charms, let down by the quality of the jokes rather than by poor behaviour.
The plot is kept consistent by making all of the endings essentially the same, with the only difference being how the predetermined conclusion is reached. This unfortunately doesn't leave much room for character development, which is an issue shared with the regular shorts, but there are hints of it: several shorts depict Fluttershy moving past her stage fright, while "Stressed in Show" involves a minor moral about taking a break when work is causing too much anxiety. It all comes together in a far more coherent manner than it has any right to, and the play itself is genuinely endearing both despite and because of its amateurish nature. Alas, they were released on YouTube with a significant gap in between, despite all of those elements of continuity, which suggests an lingering carelessness on the distribution end.
The success of short-form Equestria Girls is put in stark relief with the relative awkwardness of the longer specials, which on the YouTube playlist are both cut into five different parts. Both are deeply formulaic and predictable, and both touch lightly on themes which are never sufficiently developed. Despite this, both are fairly entertaining, even if their respective attempts at seriousness get in the way. The first is titled either "Forgotten Friendship: Sunset Shimmer's Saga" or "Most Likely to Be Forgotten" depending on where you look, and it's admittedly the series' most significant attempt at emotional depth in a while. Indeed, it's a more successful stab at melodrama than either the 2017 specials or "Legend of Everfree," and it has a lot of good ideas: forcing Sunset to return to Equestria, a relatively complex antagonist, and a genuinely charming supporting role involving Trixie.
But "Forgotten Friendship" is much too formulaic to make good on most of those ideas, and hits way too many familiar beats for its stakes to feel legitimate. It's immediately obvious that the status quo will be restored by the end, and the special is never quite insightful enough to make up for that. Nonetheless, "Forgotten Friendship" finds a lot of entertaining moments in that interim, especially from the pony Twilight Sparkle back in Equestria and from Trixie in the human world. The latter is the character who gets the most development, whereas Sunset is largely the same person at the start that she is at the end. Early on, and especially in the insufferable first part, Trixie seems to just be her usual egocentric self, but by the end she's revealed a degree of insecurity beneath her mask of bravado, which in turn makes her decision to help Sunset out all the more endearing.
Indeed, if "Forgotten Friendship" has a main theme, it's about moving on from failure. Trixie manages to do that, and becomes a nicer person by finding someone who can relate, whereas the villain, named Wallflower Blush, tries to overwrite her own failures with Equestrian magic. The problem with Wallflower is that her motivations don't make much sense. Early on, they simply seem selfish, because they mostly stem from jealousy of Sunset, although there's also a weirdly contrived thread about everyone ignoring her for no apparent reason. Later, those motivations become actively confusing, as in the ending she says something vague about erasing bad social experiences, which in turn raises the question of why she got so angry at Sunset in the first place. Furthermore, Sunset doesn't bring anything new to that theme, so focusing on her generally prevents the special from exploring its more interesting ideas.
A bigger problem is that this is a story about memory which doesn't show much of the characters' history. Wallflower's own past is decently relatable, but in the vague strokes provided, it's unable to justify her actions to the extent that would be required to make her sympathetic. Meanwhile, this is the story to finally feature Sunset's reunion with Princess Celestia, but in execution the meeting is so bland that it would have been better not to have them reunite at all. We see Celestia forgive Sunset, but of course she would. "Forgotten Friendship" barely suggests any specifics of their relationship, so the reunion is ultimately meaningless. At the very least, Sunset's behaviour here finally provides a link back to her past as a villain, but it's clearly presented as a lapse which she needs to get over, and otherwise there's nothing new that we learn about her here. Despite all that's entertaining about it, "Forgotten Friendship" tells us nothing about Sunset's past, present, or future, so what's even the point? Why did this story need to be told?
To some extent, the same can be said about the second short, "Rollercoaster of Friendship." The difference, however, is that this second short doesn't take itself seriously at all, so even though it's even messier and less developed than its predecessor, it tends to feel a lot more like self-parody. Like "Forgotten Friendship," this one uses many of the cliches common to both My Little Pony shows, but it's also constantly mocking those same cliches, and spends way more time on simple vignettes. The result is something which would probably have been better had it just chopped the best vignettes into individual shorts, but which is nonetheless consistently funny from start to finish. Indeed, it doesn't even have an unfunny section like the first part of "Forgotten Friendship," and the results are some of the most entertaining moments in the entire series. Some of these, like Sunset and Twilight struggling with a ring toss, go as far as to codify the personalities of characters who until recently had been lacking.
Alas, like "Forgotten Friendship," the main problem is the villain, Vignette Valencia. On the one hand, she's very funny, making frequent tossed-off references to her own villainy, and her sheer vapidity and selfishness makes her come across almost like comic relief. On the other, though, the special makes frequent toothless attempts to project deeper themes onto her, which only ever drags the story down. For instance, she makes some comments about focus testing which don't get nearly enough focus to have any bite, and the ending tries to redeem her by suggesting she'd be a perfectly decent person if only she had real friends. Even if there's some truth in that, that ending is the first time Vignette shows any deeper motivation than pure selfishness, and the special largely fails to explore her past in any detail. She works best as a joke character, and the special would have done much better if it had somehow turned her reformation into a joke as well.
Meanwhile, there's a very simple story about Applejack clashing with a very stressed out Rarity over weird things happening at the park, and while this is generally handled as well as it could be, it's too simplistic to be particularly compelling. Applejack's envy of Rarity isn't particularly sympathetic, and is drowned out by her genuine concern for her friends anyway, whereas Rarity's stress is frequently amusing but not given nearly as much focus or internal conflict as Applejack. Neither of the two attempt to listen to the other, and while that does make sense, it ultimately robs the story of nuance which might have made it more interesting. Nevertheless, we actually do learn more about Applejack and Rarity here than we did about Sunset in "Forgotten Friendship," even if it's just a little more detail on their respective efforts at career advancement, so that's nice.
It's also a good example of how these shorts have given Sunset Shimmer more of a personality. Despite being arguably the most appealing part of Equestria Girls in the past, she's often been somewhat bland, as until the new series she simply wasn't given enough in the way of flaws or interests. The new series does a lot to fill in the blanks: we see her paint in "Display of Affection" and draw in "Super Squad Goals," which suggests that she's artistically inclined, which strikes an interesting contrast with the technological and scientific focus occasionally hinted at in prior materials. Meanwhile, "Rollercoaster of Friendship" finally codifies her anger issues, which had been vaguely implied ever since Friendship Games, and adds the new dimension that she has a mean competitive streak. All of these serve to give her a unique identity in the cast, which is impressive for a character who until recently was little more than a watered-down version of Twilight Sparkle.
Speaking of which, Twilight consistently acts more like her pony self now than the doormat we saw in Legend of Everfree and "Dance Magic." Although the natural penchant for leadership is absent, all of her other qualities are evident, and even with a slightly more passive personality, she's still recognizable as Twilight Sparkle, which I couldn't always say about her in the past. It's fun enough to see her constantly producing new robotics projects, but we also see her obsessive love of learning and her tendency towards anxiety. Making her more closely resemble her pony counterpart is a good call for the series, as the characters of Friendship is Magic are strong enough to carry the show on their own, and keeping them allows the new series to import their charms from the original show. There are some differences, but they're all explicable when the girls are viewed as younger, less mature versions of the same people. Equestria Girls, then, has all of the advantages of a prequel with all the freedom of a reboot.
Even some secondary characters get fleshed out a little more: Microchips, a random geek with bit parts in the earlier movies, demonstrates a quirky bravado in a couple supporting roles; Maud Pie has a short largely focused on her, and is as delightful as ever; Zephyr Breeze shows up on a couple occasions with his winningly obnoxious personality still intact. The latter two in particular highlight what I think is one of the most appealing parts of Equestria Girls: seeing what characters from Friendship is Magic would be like in a more mundane scenario. The current series has proved itself very willing to balance that with further development of the musical and magical aspects of the franchise, and that's why it seems so confident in its own identity.
The new Equestria Girls is hardly perfect, and it's not yet substantial enough to attract new fans, but it's as charming as My Little Pony has been in ages. If Equestria Girls originated on shaky foundations, the new series finds a fresh identity for it without betraying what made the original series so special, and it also sets itself up with limitless potential. In a lot of ways, it's the fresh restart for these characters which Friendship is Magic has been desperately in need of for years now, and the short format works wonders for creating charming and funny scenarios without the burden of moralizing. Fans of the series' magical and dramatic elements will find something here, but fans of more mundane and silly stories have plenty to love as well. This is a series which has finally found itself.