It’s now less than a week until the premiere of Season Three of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Boy, how far we’ve come.
It seems like only yesterday that we all were unhappy, cynical, entertainment-consuming Internet denizens who would never have given a second’s consideration to watching some new My Little Pony cartoon, no matter how edgy, ironic, or tongue-in-cheek its modern, Shrek-inspired incarnation might purport to be. Irony in 2010 was itself old news.
But that’s just two deceptively short years ago. For many of us, it’s difficult even to cast our minds back to the age Before Pony. Ever since then our familiarity with this immersive, earnest, magical show has deepened so fully and so rapidly that we can barely imagine our lives without it. And it’s all happened in less time than it takes many college students to decide on a major.
What’s next for the show? Some speculation inevitably follows the jump.
Ever since I first started following MLP:FiM and taking part in its fandom, I’ve been fascinated by two big things. First, I’ve wanted to see what effects it would have on the adult men who fell in love with it, defying their gender-norm expectations and wearing their allegiance to a “girly” cartoon show on their sleeves as a badge of post-irony honor. And second, I’ve wanted to see just how long the show could keep up its level of weird, almost supernatural energy. Something so subversive and so addictive, I told myself, would almost have to be a flash in the pan. Or if it does have staying power, it can’t actually have any lasting effects on the society that has created the conditions for it to exist.
The Story So Far
I hadn’t seen more than the first two episodes of the show, the premiere two-parter featuring the now-iconic battle against Nightmare Moon, before I thought I understood what kind of investment it would take for viewers of this new show to turn into fans.
I could tell right away that the first step someone might have to take would be to tamp down his own predilections against “girly” entertainment, against a colorful visual design palette full of heart-based iconography and rainbow color schemes, against aggressively cute character designs and dialogue peppered with words like cutie mark and everypony, and against the viscerally ingrained physical reactions that cause most grown men to react with an instinctive frantic grab for the remote control when confronted with a saccharine theme song full of major chords and harps and wind chimes. No matter what someone’s personal tastes, there’s a price to be paid even in modern progressive society for men expressing an unabashed interest in something so patently inappropriate for their age group and gender. If you’re going to be a fan of cartoons, especially girls‘ cartoons, you’ve got to keep it under wraps. (Thousands of bronies’ experiences keeping their favorite show hidden from their family, dorm-mates, coworkers, and significant others attest to this.) And so, in order even to watch this show with a fully open mind, many fans had first to defeat their own knee-jerk reactions to what attributes their minds had been trained to think were simply wrong for men to like.
Where could this lead, I asked? What happens when so many people, each one tallied by a “Like” counter on a surreptitious YouTube video of a bootlegged Hub broadcast, let their guards down enough to admit to themselves that they were unabashed fans of My Little Pony?
In those heady first few months, as the first season of broadcast episodes played itself out and the fandom entered its first summer-long pony drought, I told myself that we were witnessing a seismic societal shift in progress. It was to be a great realignment of behavioral expectations and gender politics, a blurring of the bright border between “boys’” and “girls’” entertainment, and a relaxation of the artificial restrictions we place on ourselves that keep millions of young people imprisoned by rigorous and impoverished vocabulary into gender roles in which they may never be comfortable.
Years prior to Pony, I sat in a movie theater with a thousand raucous, sarcastic, wisecracking youths and watched as paper cutouts of Satan and Saddam Hussein shared scenes of domestic strife, abuse, and imbalanced love and lust. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, weirdly, planted a seed in my head of what could become of the modern generation of young adults if exposed to entertainment that gave them the opportunity to challenge their own expectations and consider it funny and cool to do so.
As the movie reached its apocalyptic conclusion, I heard one backward-baseball-cap-wearing dude in front of me loudly whisper to his friend, “Man, Satan deserves better than Saddam.”
Could it be, I thought to myself, that the makers of this filthy, raunchy, juvenile animated romp had tricked millions of too-cool-for-school viewers into rooting against one particular expression of alternate sexuality… and in the process, rooting for a potentially better one? By playing the relationship between Satan and Saddam for gross-out laughs, Parker and Stone, it seemed, had suckered their fans into focusing not on the taboo nature of gay relationships in general, but on the dysfunctional details of this particular relationship. It got a bunch of rowdy consumers of prime-time transgressive comedy to open up to the idea of a healthy, wholesome gay partnership, through the process of seeing what an unhealthy one looks like—and by extension what the tragic antihero Satan really deserved in a partner.
I might be reading too much into things, as usual; but I convinced myself at the time that by bombarding their audience with a few grotesque images of uncensorable obscenity and fishing for a few cheap laughs, Parker and Stone had made a few million newly minted adults just a little bit more receptive to a world in which it’s perfectly okay for guys to cast beyond the traditional, antiquated bounds of “manliness” in order to define who and what they were.
More than ten years later I found myself watching a colorful cartoon in which a pink pony trots up to a purple one and completely flips out at the opportunity to throw her a welcoming cupcakes-and-ice-cream party in her tree library, and I thought to myself: Here we go again.
My imagination ran away with me, I’ll admit. Watching the early breathless reviews of the show (such as this one by Tezzle of That Guy With the Glasses) gave the distinct impression that it was on the very brink of turning society violently upside down. Reaction was so overwhelmingly positive among new viewers—hardly anyone who gave the show an honest chance didn’t end up loving it—that the explosive growth of its fan base bordered on mania. With it, inevitably, had to come an attendant reevaluation of every fan’s concept of what makes for “acceptable” entertainment for them, as men, to watch. Wouldn’t that, inherently, lead to a spontaneous worldwide joining of hands and outburst of singing, an end to all the strife born from pointless prejudice and a liberation of pained millions from their own psychological prisons? Would love and tolerance really become an unironic, universal philosophy to underpin the nascent second decade of the new century—all thanks to a My Little Pony cartoon airing on an unknown Hasbro-backed cable network?
Now, two years later, I know I was being pretty naïve. I should say that I didn’t really imagine that such societal change would come so easily; it cheapens the very real work and suffering of millions who have fought for a long-awaited evolution of social norms to suggest that a cartoon, of all things, would succeed where they didn’t. But it was fun to dream of such a thing happening. Because stranger things have happened.
Realistically, let’s face it: this show might just be a show after all, not some transformative, transcendent touchstone for our generation. Our honeymoon with it is largely over, and two years into it we’re treating My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as an old familiar friend rather than a bewitching, surreptitious new indulgence. It has its flaws and its compromises that we can’t overlook. It’s had a couple of stinker episodes; some pieces of character development have gone in ways we might not all like. A lot of the mysteries behind its creation have been laid bare by countless interviews with the creators, many of whom are all too glad to share every one of their experiences they can recall with their ardent, obsessive fans; and all too often, those mysteries reveal that what we like to think of as magic being worked in the halls of DHX Media is really just a lot of happy accidents.
It even seems a bit presumptuous, in retrospect, for so many thousands of adult men to have commandeered the media attention given to this show and made it all about them, about the brony phenomenon, rather than about the show itself and how it was originally intended: as a means to empower the girls who are its target audience, by giving them a piece of entertainment and mythology that’s every bit as cool and enviable as what the boys have always gotten to enjoy and treat as their own exclusive domain.
But it’s still a pretty remarkable show, for all that. Even once we allow for incisive critique, squinting through the rose-tinted glasses we’ve all become accustomed to wearing, it still stands up for itself well and delights us in ways that little else on TV really can. And with the prospect of a third season coming fast upon us, most of us are as excited to see brand-new episodes as we ever were when we were first discovering the show.
Changing of the Guard
I’m going to throw a few names out here. See if you can tell what they all have in common.
- The Ren and Stimpy Show.
- Dexter’s Laboratory.
- Johnny Bravo.
- The Powerpuff Girls.
- SpongeBob SquarePants.
- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
It shouldn’t be difficult to guess what trait all these properties share—aside from being highly acclaimed, often cult-favorite shows and franchises that earned sizable fan bases thanks to the energetic oversight of their gifted creators.
They each had their creators leave the project after a mere year or two at the helm, and then had to carry on without those creators’ vision.
What’s potentially a bit alarming is that with the exception of the last one on that list, every one of those shows changed so much as to become almost unrecognizable after their creators left the building.
Certainly, the circumstances for each of these cases is a little bit different. John Kricfalusi was ejected from his role as the mastermind of Ren & Stimpy due to his insubordination and willful tweaking of his corporate masters; after his departure, Bob Camp tried gamely to hew as closely to John K’s inimitable style as he could, but failed to keep the show fresh only because nobody is quite as insane when it comes to cartoon-making as John K is. After the release of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in 2004, creator Stephen Hillenburg passed on the helm to Paul Tibbitt—with the result that many long-time fans see a distinct drop in quality and fun in the show in the “post-movie” era. Other properties not in my list have undergone similar evolutionary changes—some for the worse, some better. Star Trek: The Next Generation, by most accounts, only started to become truly great once Gene Roddenberry’s death freed it from his firm creative grip, and subsequently Star Trek: Deep Space Nine earned high acclaim for its much grittier and more realistic vision than what Roddenberry was ever likely to have approved. And, of course, Star Wars became an unrecognizable parody of itself once its three prequel films were brought into digital being by an aging, out-of-touch George Lucas who saw such promise in green-screens and computer animation that he blinded himself to the heart and the fun that had characterized the original iconic trilogy he himself had once created.
But perhaps most notably, when Van Partible left Johnny Bravo, and when Genndy Tartakovsky moved on from Dexter’s Laboratory to focus on other Cartoon Network projects such as Star Wars: Clone Wars, both shows were retooled by new production teams to such an extent that they might as well have been different shows entirely. Johnny Bravo received new visual designs and supporting cast that turned its quirky, gimmicky format into something more resembling a daily sitcom. And Dexter’s Laboratory, under the hand of new creative director and occasional Friendship is Magic scriptwriter Chris Savino, saw its charmingly imperfect, thick-lined visual inventiveness toned down and smoothed out until the whole show became far more predictable, far less zany, and nowhere near the level of fun that it had been in its first couple of years under Tartakovsky.
It’s no secret that Lauren Faust, creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, left the show after penning the story concepts for the second season’s worth of scripts. It’s also no secret that, as the wife of Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken and long-time friend of Tartakovsky, Rob Renzetti, and other members of the CalArts round-table that revolutionized Cartoon Network’s offerings in the late 1990s, she has seen first-hand each of these stories of shows outliving their creators’ involvement—often to the shows’ own detriment. We can certainly consider ourselves lucky as a fandom that she has remained so engaged with it as to appear at BronyCon this past summer and Equestria LA this week, gamely hosting panels and interviews and clasping hands with those thousands of fans who remain so eager to meet her face-to-face and tell her how much they appreciate what she’s given them.
I personally have been fascinated to see what becomes of this show now that Faust is no longer a part of it at all. History, as I’ve pointed out, teaches us that it’s a rare show—perhaps even an unprecedented one—that can survive the departure of its creator intact. Whether intentionally or not, nearly every show that’s outlived its creator’s tenure has transformed into something instantly recognizable as coming from a different era; and as often as not, it’s turned into a pale shadow of its former self, shorn of its charm and its inventiveness and its coherency. All too often, fans might dolefully wish that a show had died rather than be forced to live on without its original creative vision holding it together and on course.
We watched Season Two of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic with some trepidation, to be sure—we wanted to convince ourselves that Pony in the post-Faust era would be as charming and fun as Season One was, produced entirely on her watch. What has been a thoroughly gratifying surprise is that with the exception of a few operational details (like whether Twilight Sparkle was absolutely required to deliver the friendship lesson to Princess Celestia at the end of every episode, or whether the “E/I” rating was a master to be obeyed at all costs), the second season has been largely indistinguishable from the first. It’s even produced some of the most broadly acclaimed episodes in the whole series, such as “Sisterhooves Social”, “Hurricane Fluttershy”, and the show-stopping two-part finale “A Canterlot Wedding”.
But we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’ve really seen what the show post-Faust will be like. Lauren’s involvement lasted through the story-concept phase for all of Season Two, including the narrative sketches for “A Canterlot Wedding”; as she has told fans, her original concept for the Hasbro toy-insert Princess Cadance was of a wingless unicorn, and the character’s design was only changed after her involvement came to an end. The full scriptwriting and the voicing and animation of Season Two’s content largely took place without Faust, but her influence still ruled over the show as it evolved through the raucous self-parody of “The Return of Harmony” to the earnest drama and textured characterizations of the wedding-centered finale.
We now face the prospect of Season Three: the first time we’ll really see what the show is going to be like from now on, with Meghan McCarthy graduating from freelance writer status to the staff position of story editor and showrunner. We’ll get to see how thoroughly she has taken on the responsibility of keeping Lauren’s vision intact, of making a sweet and beautiful show for little girls that treats them with enough intelligence and respect as to thoroughly entertain throngs of adults weaned on South Park and Star Trek. We’ll see how she can juggle the inevitable mandates from Hasbro of adding new toy-derived assets to the show’s universe in a way that feels seamless and plausible and doesn’t wreck continuity. We’ll see how she does at handling Rob Renzetti’s old role as story editor, keeping all the writers’ scripts in line with each other, making sure they all speak in a consistent voice and build the world’s universe without raising narrative conflicts. We’ll see whether she’s prepared to evolve the show’s style toward full-fledged drama and high fantasy, perhaps integrating elements of a season-long story arc (as she has intimated in recent interviews), while still keeping things rooted in the lighthearted comedy that characterized the first and second seasons. Many of the writers have indicated that Lauren’s show bible was so detailed and so richly developed, in contrast to what little the writers of many other shows have had to work with, that she all but designed the show to be able to withstand a generational turnover, with new staffers being able to pick it all up from scratch. But we’ll see how well McCarthy and her team have been able to realize that design, whether it was intentional (and foresighted) of Lauren or not.
Most of all, we’ll see whether the show feels any different.
It’s this subjective measurement that comes into play here, and which is of the most interest to me as someone who has watched the circumstances of the show with fascination since first learning of Faust’s departure simultaneously with catching up on the last few episodes of Season One. I’ve seen show after show turn into something entirely alien following a transitional event as big as the departure of its creator; I’ve even seen properties like The Simpsons and Futurama change into unconvincing simulacra of themselves in their later incarnations, despite being ostensibly run by the exact same people as had first brought them to life. A good show is a fragile thing, it seems; it doesn’t take much for it to lose that magic spark, even for those shows lucky enough to have kindled it in the first place.
But what may be the most remarkable thing about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is that from all accounts, judging by all the clues we have before us, all the spoilers we’ve seen and all the assurances we’ve received from the team, this show actually stands a chance of being that rarest of things: the first creator-driven pet-project show I can think of that has actually pulled off a complete generational turnover without suffering for it.
The One Who Will Bring Balance To the Force
Whether a property passes on to new hands willingly (as with George Lucas unexpectedly this week selling his franchise to Disney) or amid strife and discord, there are a million factors in play that stand in the way of the transition being a smooth one. A noticeable change in the show’s texture can be seen in something as simple as a decrease in morale in the animation studio for a critical couple of weeks. Yet we have seen, ever since the first season of Pony, that having the animation farmed out to Top Draw in the Philippines has not harmed its production quality in the least—if anything, it’s gotten better over time. The same can be said for the writing, which—for the most part—has only gotten more consistent and more satisfying as time has gone on (Cindy Morrow and Meghan McCarthy in particular have been standouts at developing their voices within the show’s framework; and of course M.A. Larson has given us such memorable moments in Season Two as the delightfully self-aware awkwardness of Princess Luna’s late re-insertion into the show). The roster of voice talent has remained as steadfast and enthusiastic as ever, weathering scares like Ashleigh Ball’s vocal cord injury early this year and fans’ baseless worry that Claire Corlett might lose Sweetie Belle’s distinctive squeak as she gets older. And the artistic direction has only become more ambitious than ever before as the second season has progressed, with Jayson Thiessen animating a key sequence in “A Friend In Deed” using felt cutouts laid out across a couple of kitchen chairs during his off hours.
If anything, this show’s staff loves making it even more than ever. And that love is bound to be what gives it lasting quality throughout this abbreviated season and whatever is destined to come afterwards.
With no official word on whether a Season Four is in the offing, we don’t know for sure how much more Pony we can expect to get beyond Season Three’s thirteen episodes. Many clues have led us to suspect that there’s going to be at least another, with no reason to believe there’s any confirmed end to production in sight. But no matter how much longer it lasts, it’s the season that begins this Saturday that will provide the insight we need into what the show will be like from now on, under its new generation of caretakers.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic hasn’t taken the world by storm turning a generation’s collective understanding of gender-targeted fiction media inside out. It isn’t on the verge of reversing global warming and cleaning up the atmosphere like the air guitar of Bill S. Preston and Theodore Logan. But really, it doesn’t have to in order to be something special. It’s graduated now to the status of a fully fledged really good TV show—one that stands as a substantial body of creative work that can be judged critically on its own merits, without any disclaimers excusing it for being a “surprise” hit in spite of the low expectations everyone had for it, or for being remarkable primarily for its unexpected, uncourted adult fan base. It’s proven that it can be many things to many people simply because its creative team is really that good—Meghan McCarthy and her team are good at their job, they take it seriously, and they love it. Those three ingredients will see the show through to whatever success Hasbro is interested in letting it achieve.
I hope I speak for the fandom as a whole when I say that I have all hope and faith in Season Three being the best one yet. ■