After Dash had one of the most insufferable appearances of the series, A Trivial Pursuit is somewhat a return to form for Season 9.
The best part, bar none, is Twilight's arc. While Lesson Zero slowly progressed Twilight into insanity, Twilight began to feel the pressure before the cold open; Spike's attempts to reassure himself and Twilight's obsessive grin and eyes give that away so quickly. When the episode conveniently puts her and Pinkie (who never played the game before)) together, things just went south.
Now, Pinkie isn't trying to hurt Twilight in any way. She wants to have fun and help Twilight win. However, she was a poor teammate. She wasn't familiar with any of the rules [and apparently never opened the rule book ( )], had no idea that you needed to answer specifically to be awarded points, couldn't interject her own opinion into her answer (putting them both in the red for a bit), and got easily distracted. So the audience can see why Twilight panics and tries to use the rules to get back into the game.
Of course, like 246G, ATP doesn't show a character at her best or most likeable. Twilight was completely antagonistic and not someone to root for, especially in a game designed for some friendly competition. When you look over the episode, she used the rules to do some really bad things.
- Get Cranky, who did nothing wrong, disqualified for taking a quick nap.
- Caught Fluttershy taking suggestions from Angel.
- Dock points from AJ and Dash for taunting each other.
- Tried to create a new rule in order to penalize Maud and Mud.
But the worst thing she did was take advantage of both her knowledge of the rules and Pinkie's lack thereof to bait Pinkie into asking Maud for information within an active category and intentionally get her disqualified so Sunburst can replace her. So why does Twilight’s terrible behavior work much more than Rainbow Dash’s?
In Greaaat, Dash was completely composed as she bullied her students. Despite an early panic attack, Twilight initially held out hope and tried to coach Pinkie. However, her sanity had already spiraled coming into this moment, especially when Granny read aloud the "Sticks & Stones" category, so she clearly was not in the right mind when she baited PP. DQ’ing Pinkie was the last possible outcome for her, whereas RD’s sour opinions of cheerleading never changed.
Dash was supposed to teach her students how to cheerlead, but she wanted nothing to do with them and was being less than lazy throughout. From the get-go, she looked for whatever excuse to get out of her classroom, forced them to fend for themselves, and intentionally exacerbated the problem for those who looked forward to making the halftime show as memorable as the tournament itself. OTOH, this episode takes place inside the Hay Burger restaurant. Twilight never had fun the entire time there and became more and more insane as she fell behind. (Notice how her mane's and tail’s neatnesses changed in accordance to her sanity, a nice callback from Lesson Zero.) The stakes here are less weighty than the former.
- Even after her students screwed up, she still couldn’t care less and continued insulting the passion and those who enjoyed it after Yona and Ocellus ran away crying. She didn’t come to her epiphany until Smolder and Snips called her out for it, so her apology didn’t feel contrite until after they re-met and worked hard for the next twelve days. However, despite teaming up with Sunburst, Twilight never got what she wanted. With a goal of maintain a high correct percentage, Sunburst was obsessed to not answer incorrectly and was way more uncooperative than the more innocent Pinkie. All of the humor at her expense during montage #3 works because she completely deserves it. As the climax approached, she remained far behind and nearly got baited into being disqualified herself, only to realize her grave mistake just in time; her remorse is more impactful than Dash’s as a result.
Also, this lesson applies much more personally to Twilight here than in Lesson Zero for one crucial reason. The moral of LZ is for the ReMane Five, not her. Here, Twilight is explicitly learning how her freakouts made things miserable to not only herself, but also her teammate and those around her.
As for the rest:
When there's an episode light in story as this, it's important to be entertaining throughout. Trivial Pursuit has a load of comedy, but not all of them succeed.
Like Sparkle's Seven, the animators had a load of fun with facial expressions. Every one of them by Twilight worked very, very well. Probably TOO well. But one specific face failed massively: Pinkie's "TWI-PIE!" face! X__X
Pinkie sounds excited and eager to team up with a Twilight. Her overly exaggerated face and how suddenly close up the camera got makes her look as crazy as TS, if not more so. This jump scare is less humorous and more nightmare fuel.
Other joke-related comments.
The aftermath of Bulk's brohoof was the funniest of the whole episode.
I don't need to see a closeup of Pinkie's rumbling tummy along with its gross-sounding growl! X__X
The audience doesn't need to see a pool of Cranky's drool as he sleeps. Bleh! D:
- Twilight Sparkle: [brays] I don't know anything about those! That's not any kind of category!
- Mudbriar: Technically, it's a kind of category where we know the answers and you don't.
- Twilight Sparkle: [hyperventilating into paper bag]
Buffalo Man: *hands Twilight a cup of ice*
Dash's characterization is much better, and her rivalry with Applejack here was funnier and more IC than Compete Crap Clause. Unlike that episode, their competition was contained to the nightclub without getting too insulting, and no one was under the threat of drowning. The best moment between them was AJ not answering the Zap Apple question on time (thanks to Dash's distraction), and on cue:Quote
Granny Smith *to AJ*: At least somepony here knows her apples.
AJ: *covers muzzle with hat from embarrassment*
@Cwanky makes a fair point about how the Trivia Trot rule book being Twilight's character "in hard copy form." Each rule either aided or hindered her three-peat obsession. These absurd rules are a written extension of both her character and episode arc. However, I share part of what @OptimisticNeighsayer wrote, that it may feel less contrived if other players aside from Twilight used the rules similar to Twi, just to show that using them is a part of the game. In Trivial Pursuit, only Twilight and Sunburst know the rules from front to back. The only rule everyone knows so well is probably the most severe: Asking another team for answer information from within an active category is cheating, and thus you're disqualified.
As is, the rule book's way to difficult to take seriously in any way, shape, or form. While you have valid anti-cheating rules such as not being allowed to review source material, ones like "no help from pets," "no napping," "no taunting," and "DQ'd players can reassemble into their own team" are way too out there. The book is a blatant plot device. Stuck on the plot? Twilight knows a rule for that!
Combined with a well-paced story, A Trivial Pursuit brought Season 9 back on track after 2, 4, 6, Greaaat derailed its streak. However, it's weaker than the worst episode of Season 9A, Going to Seed for a big reason: Average for most of the first half, the heartwarming older-younger sister bond between Apple Bloom and Applejack in the second half elevates it. But if the second-worst episode of the season is still good, I'll take it.