This year, I had an exit strategy. If My Little Pony wasn't entertaining me by the third episode of the season, I'd bail. As it turned out, I watched every episode, so clearly this season was an improvement over last year's wretched showing, and there's actually a lot of trends this season which were pleasant surprises for me. At long last, this show is making some serious changes to its approach which have been long overdue, and as it turns out, this season wasn't half-bad. I mean, it's two-fifths bad, and it retains some of the same issues the show has had for years, but it's a small improvement. What season 8 showed me is this: My Little Pony can improve, I can still have fun with it, and the people currently writing the show have no intention of getting their priorities straight. It's still a show which regularly overextends its reach, and it's still a show which has no idea what to do with its own main cast. But it's a more watchable version of that show this year, and even its failed experiments are a bit less dull and rigid than they were last year. It's still a show mostly made by people who care about telling good stories, and that's ultimately what keeps me watching. I just wish they cared a bit more about which series they were writing those stories for.
So, first, the good. Most obvious is that the show has finally adopted a seasonal gimmick in the form of a so-called "School of Friendship," where Twilight and her friends teach all of the lessons that they've learned to students from across Equestria and beyond. It's not a gimmick which makes much sense, admittedly, as the show never explains where Twilight or her friends actually find the time to run the school, and none of them ever really seem to know what they're doing. But it's a breath of fresh air nonetheless, and it allows the show to tell stories which are a bit different from the norm. Say what you will about their respective quality, but episodes like "Non-Compete Clause," "Molt Down," and "Marks for Effort" take advantage of the school setting to explore stories which might not have been possible in prior seasons, and even when those episodes are bad, the change in pace is refreshing.
Also refreshing is just how much emphasis this season places on continuity. There are multiple episodes which directly reference the passage of time, and "Molt Down" in particular introduces a notable change which affects every episode afterwards. The character of Neighsay, introduced in the premiere, appears briefly in "Friendship University," and characters from earlier seasons make somewhat more regular appearances this year as well, most notably Chrysalis in "The Mean 6," Lightning Dust in "The Washouts," and Rockhoof in "A Rockhoof and a Hard Place." The seasonal villain, Cozy Glow, makes repeated appearances throughout the season, every time seeming more and more suspicious. Don't get me wrong, there's still no tangible running plot, but there's a clear increase in serialization, which is a marked difference from the tepid experiments of prior seasons.
In fact, there's definitely a sense that the show's willing to take more risks this season, and some stories here directly cover subject matter which the show was unable to in the past. For instance, the aforementioned "Molt Down" covers puberty in a very recognizable and obvious manner, while all three episodes featuring Neighsay relate to racism and xenophobia, and "The Hearth's Warming Club" explicitly presents a character as an orphan. It's not that the show has never covered these subjects in the past, but this year it seems to feel no need to hide them. A great example is "Father Knows Beast," which mines a lot of pathos out of Spike's missing parentage, not only for Spike, but also for Twilight, who tries to fill the void but worries she can't.
Even more surprisingly, the show has returned a good deal of imagination to its worldbuilding. Whereas last season it paired simple parables with aesthetics ripped from world mythology, here it much more cleverly builds upon already established concepts to greater effect. In "Surf and/or Turf," the hippogriffs' divided identity is given a little more detail. In "The Hearth's Warming Club," holiday rituals and cultural stories from various non-pony species are explored. In "What Lies Beneath," the Tree of Harmony is revealed to be a sentient entity which is capable of learning. If there's any quality of this season which is an unambiguous leap forward, it's this, which finally puts the show in a world which lives up to its original groundwork.
And then there's the absurd bloat of the cast, which is handled way better than it could have been. Six new characters are introduced in leading roles, and although all of their episodes are together, this ultimately bloats the main cast up to no fewer than 14 characters. That's a lot to juggle, and the show doesn't quite manage to make the balance work, but these "student six" characters get a handful of genuinely charming episodes mostly to themselves without taking attention away from the main six. Alas, this doesn't actually leave them much room to develop individually, so most of the episodes they appear in take a somewhat forceful approach to establishing their personality. "Non-Compete Clause" has Rainbow Dash and Applejack act poorly seemingly for the sole purpose of making the students look better, and "What Lies Beneath" contrives an adventure scenario to explore each character's greatest fears. I found myself rather fond of these characters, but their development could have been handled better.
That's a recurring trend in season 8. A lot of the general trends of this season imply the show moving forward, but none of them are executed quite as well as they should have been. For instance, another character who I surprisingly enjoyed this season was Starlight Glimmer, whose caustic personality has been expanded upon while her seeming ignorance of social norms has been greatly reduced. Several episodes, especially early in the season, find her doing nothing worse than speaking somewhat tactlessly, and each of those instances is either reacted to accordingly or actually pretty understandable. But the writers can't resist having her make extreme impulsive decisions, like in "A Matter of Principals," where she casts a weird banishing spell on Discord, or "On the Road to Friendship," where she trades Trixie's cart without bothering to ask first.
The thing is, this season has done enough work with her to make her lapses fit in with those of the mane six, and they're at least more interesting than what the mane six actually do this season. If there's anywhere that the school gimmick falls short, it's in giving the mane six something new to do, because season 8 falls back on bickering more than ever, reducing formerly nuanced relationships to irritating bickering that makes you wonder why these characters are friends in the first place. "Non-Compete Clause" and "The End in Friend" have characters act without even the slightest bit of consideration towards each other, and even that is less baffling than "Fake It 'Til You Make It" and "Yakity-Sax," which both have characters behave in ways which are completely inexplicable in the grand scheme of things. In a season which has more direct continuity than ever before, those lapses are all the more noticeable.
There are other cases, too, which are more justifiable but still irritating. "Sound of Silence" is another episode which relies partially on bickering, and while at least those arguments are comparatively important and thematically justified, the characters still come across as overly stubborn. Meanwhile, "The Maud Couple" and "The Washouts" make heroic efforts to justify their central characters' behaviour, but can't keep those characters from seeming unreasonably insensitive. Even a genuinely funny episode like "Friendship University" is dragged down by implying that Twilight can't handle anyone making a competing school.
The problem is implications: Pinkie Pie is implied to be so fragile that Maud needs to lie to her, and Rainbow Dash is implied to not be willing to accept Scootaloo taking any path other than what she chooses. These implications are appropriate for those episodes' morals, but they reflect poorly on those characters, and create a sense of distance which the show didn't have even as recently as season 6. These don't always feel like the same characters I fell in love with all those years ago. As with last year, I really do think the problem is that the writers come up with ideas for morals first and try to fit the characters into that, and while the results are at least somewhat less dreary this year, they still feel at best like a pale imitation of what the show is supposed to be like.
One of the biggest tells is the rise in ambition, which after all of these years still hasn't been accompanied by an actual rise in nuance. "The Washouts," for instance, recognizes how authority figures' actions can push children away, but Rainbow Dash's actions often come across as an exaggerated caricature of such behaviour, making her less sympathetic in the process. On the other end of the spectrum, "Surf and/or Turf" has such a fluffy take on being divided between homes that it barely feels like a real problem, and doesn't resonate with any of the thornier issues it's superficially similar to. This is a regular problem with the season, and even episodes which transcend that, like "Father Knows Beast," suffer from exaggerated character behaviour and overly simplified morals. This show has proven time and time again that it can't live up to its ambitions, so it really needs to scale them back.
Moreover, this show tends to be very predictable, so focusing too much on the big ideas doesn't offer enough to distract from that. A good example is "A Rockhoof and a Hard Place," which orients itself so completely around the main idea of Rockhoof feeling out of place in the modern world that it has nowhere to go but to repeat itself for several minutes. If the early seasons got surprising depth out of their simple themes, the new seasons aim so high that they forget that subtlety. Everything is telegraphed at the start, and then repeated several times before getting resolved in obvious fashion at the end. The worst example is perhaps "The Parent Map," which creates a mildly clever parallel and then repeats it every five seconds, because it doesn't trust kids to get the hint. A lot of the topics this show has brought up these last few years beg for a more sophisticated and poetic treatment than what they get here, but a children's show like My Little Pony might never be able to offer that.
Still, this season was much less constrained by moralizing than last season, and some episodes clearly have other priorities. "Marks for Effort" and "Molt Down" seem way more interested in character development and creating relatable scenarios than in communicating a grand thesis, and "The Mean 6" has such a simplistic moral that it might as well not be there at all. Stuff like this makes me wonder what the show would be like if the writers approached it like a sitcom, or even a soap opera, because whenever it finally decides to relax a bit, it can still accomplish great stuff. Other episodes, like "Horse Play" and "On the Road to Friendship," find an ideal balance, telling simple stories with simple morals while spending most of their time veering from one gag to another.
Ultimately, I guess the biggest issue is that a lot of season 8 still wasn't much fun to me. Here, all I really have to offer is raw numbers: I enjoyed 63% of episodes this season, and my average rating was 64/100. That's a huge leap over last year, but it doesn't even meet the heights of seasons 4 and 6, let alone 1 and 2. The even-numbered seasons are the good ones, but there's been diminishing returns ever since the second season, and this year, the charms simply weren't enough to overcome my increasing boredom and frustration with this show. I should be happy. It's done a lot of the things I've been demanding for years now, and even if the show's still in decline, few shows decline as ambitiously and weirdly as My Little Pony has. But watching this show has become a bit of a chore for me, and at this point it doesn't seem like that's ever going to change.
My Little Pony season 8 was alright, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm done with this show.
Here's how I rank every episode of this season, with scores included beside the title:
1. Horse Play (100)
2. The Mean 6 (85)
3. Marks for Effort (83)
4. The Hearth's Warming Club (83)
5. Molt Down (80)
6. The Break Up Break Down (78)
7. Road to Friendship (78)
8. Grannies Gone Wild (75)
9. School Daze (75)
10. Friendship University (73)
11. What Lies Beneath (70)
12. Father Knows Beast (70)
13. The Maud Couple (68)
14. A Rockhoof and a Hard Place (65)
15. The Washouts (65)
16. School Raze (58)
17. Surf and/or Turf (55)
18. Yakity Sax (53)
19. The End in Friend (43)
20. A Matter of Principals (43)
21. Sounds of Silence (43)
22. The Parent Map (35)
23. Fake It Til You Make it (35)
24. Non-Compete Clause (25)