Today on TRS we welcome aboard PictishBeast from our forums for his first-ever front page article.
“The Best Night Ever” is the 26th episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but it’s the first episode I genuinely loved. What took me so long, and why do so many people just not “get” this show? Read on to find out.
The Where, The What, and the Why
Here’s the thing: This is a good show, but no one has done a good job explaining why. Critics inevitably launch jabs at fans along the lines of, “Why exactly are you watching a cartoon show about pretty ponies?” and fans are conditioned to respond with a barrage of facts. The show is cleverly written. It’s well-animated. It was created by the people who did The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. It’s got pop-culture references for adults, like the Big Lebowski ponies.
And sure, those are all true. But none of those facts really answer the question that’s being asked. A smart critic will volley back with, “Well okay…but there are lots of well-written, well-animated shows with pop-culture references, and you don’t see them supporting a dozen different cons every year. So why this show?”
And up until “The Best Night Ever,” that was me. I’d seen the “Love and Tolerate” memes the show had spawned and I had no desire to jump aboard the next Nyan Cat. But this show had a prestigious CalArts pedigree. Creator Lauren Faust came from the same California Institute of the Arts animation alumni class as Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Sym-Bionic Titan) and Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls, and also Faust’s husband). Their network of friends provided top-drawer talent for this particular My Little Pony reboot including story editor Rob Renzetti (My Life as a Teenage Robot) and Tartakovsky collaborator Paul Rudish (who co-wrote the Friendship is Magic pitch bible with Faust). With these names attached, the show was definitely worth a look.
So I took a look, and I liked it. The character design was excellent. The art direction was eye-catching. The voice actors were outstanding. The animation was surprisingly good for Adobe Flash. The writing was clever and the characters clearly defined. It was an exceptionally well-done show, and I could understand why people liked it. I was still in the dark as to why people loved it.
By May 2011 I’d seen nearly an entire season of the show and had gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it. I laughed at meek Fluttershy’s basso profundo voice change in “Bridle Gossip” and geeked out at the Star Trek parody in the tribble-tastic “Swarm of the Century.” I cringed a bit at the episodes that featured the grade-school aged Cutie Mark Crusaders, but silently applauded outings like “Green Isn’t Your Color” where the writing staff really started having fun with character interactions, and “Party of One” where the narrative took an unexpected turn into hallucinatory, split-personality paranoia. But, even after all of that, I still viewed the show at arms-length. Well done, certainly. Bravo to the creators. A solid effort all around. Yet I was no closer to understanding why people loved this thing so much, and was prepared to admit that it was one of those things that I just didn’t get.
Then came “The Best Night Ever.” It’s the final episode of Season 1 and revolves around the main characters — Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie — getting dressed up to go to the capital for a fancy ball called the Grand Galloping Gala. The event itself had been teased way back in Episode 3, and as a finale episode “The Best Night Ever” promised to pay off everything we’d learned about the six characters over the course of the season. As it turned out, we’d learned quite a bit.
I began watching the episode in analytic mode: Nice continuity callback. Clever meta-reference (Applejack points out to a fussy Rarity that there’s no point to guarding the dressing-room door as the ponies “don’t normally wear clothes”). Gorgeous world-building (the capital city of Canterlot is a beautiful gingerbread pastiche inspired by the works of Disney designer Mary Blair). Excellent ensemble musical number (Daniel Ingram, the show’s composer, channeled Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods to create the knockout “At the Gala”).
I found myself getting closer and closer to the screen as the episode unspooled, and when Rainbow Dash got admitted into the gala’s VIP section and let out a completely uncharacteristic girly squeal, I made pretty much the same noise. At which point I actually paused the playback and had a “what the hell?!” moment.
Yeah I made this noise. I’m not proud of it.
It turned out I wasn’t only enjoying the writing and the animation, I actually cared whether the ponies were going to have a good time at pony prom. And to see too-cool-for-the-room Rainbow Dash drop all pretense at maintaining her popular image and become an embarrassing fangirl for a second, that felt startlingly real. Thank God she’s having a good time, came a voice from some strange new part of my psyche.
It suddenly dawned on me that I was invested in these characters. Over the course of the season they had been shaded with far more nuance than you’d expect upon first viewing, and their reasons for attending the Gala were surprisingly mercenary. In fact, after their archetypal “this one’s the cowgirl” introductions in the pilot episode, each of the ponies had demonstrated a panoply of believable and ugly flaws: bitter sarcasm, lazy cluelessness, drama-queen meltdowns, and more.
The Relentless Pursuit of Imperfection
Each of the characters clearly wants something out of the Gala, and their single-minded pursuit of those goals is put under an awkward and funny spotlight. Despite her VIP backstage pass Rainbow Dash fails to impress the big shots who could boost her flying career, so she slams an innocent partygoer into the air so she can stage an attention-grabbing rescue. The profit-minded Applejack, whose concession stand goes ignored by the Gala’s attendees, knocks a few apples onto the sidewalk so pedestrians will trip and fall, allowing her to deliver an unwanted sales pitch as she helps them back to their feet. When the hyperactive Pinkie Pie realizes the Gala is a far more elegant affair than the one she’d cooked up in her candy-coated imagination, she tries to force the guests to join in her sugar-rush regimen of polkas and stage diving.
Rarity, the classy fashionista, doesn’t visit any violence upon her fellow Gala goers. But, in an episode with heavy fairy-tale allusions, Rarity’s objective of meeting a handsome prince seems doomed from the start. Of course she’s never met the prince in question, and it becomes obvious that Rarity has instead made a shrewd decision to pursue status first and hope that love follows. Because Rarity comes from low-class Ponyville, the elite of Canterlot are unlikely accept her as she is. Getting elevated to top-tier status through a royal wedding would complete Rarity’s “Madonna Louise Ciccone” transformation from a small-town outsider into a legendary style icon.
It’s probably Spike, Twilight Sparkle’s dragon sidekick, who gets the shortest end of the stick. He’s the only character at the Gala with a truly selfless motive, since his sole intent is to share the moment with the others. Accordingly, he gets kicked to the curb within the first five minutes. Out of all the ponies, it’s Twilight Sparkle who might be expected to find some time for Spike, but instead she makes a beeline for Princess Celestia in the hope that her mentor might give her a sliver of her attention. When we catch up with Spike, we see him scarfing down donuts in a corner cafe — a scene clearly staged to make him look like an angry drunk.
Finally, in The Best Night Ever’s most memorable sequence, timid Fluttershy snaps when the castle courtyard’s fluffy critters spurn her and short-circuit her emotional safety valve. As she howls, “You’re going to LOVE ME!” at a fleeing, terror-stricken menagerie, the longtime viewer isn’t taken aback as much as they’re likely to give a little nod to indicate, “Yeah, that’s been a long time coming.”
If it sounds like I’m condemning the episode by listing the characters’ faults, it’s the exact opposite. It’s damaged characters like these who are able to transcend their literal descriptions to become living, three-dimensional people, not just cardboard cutouts — and this is how I got sucker-punched. As I watched this mess of their own making unfold, I realized that I wanted Applejack to make money and Rarity to meet a real prince. I wanted Pinkie to dance and Twilight to network and Fluttershy to hang in the courtyard with animals who would welcome her instead of running the other way. So when things started going in the toilet for these little ponies — even though I could still perceive the hand of writer Amy Keating Rogers doling out their Grand Galloping Gala humiliations — it broke my heart a little. Because these were no longer fictional character templates getting put through the storytelling wringer, they were people that I knew, with hopes and dreams that I cared about. Those damn ponies had kicked down my emotional barrier. I no longer just appreciated the show. For the first time I genuinely loved it. And after that I was well and truly hooked.
That’s it, that’s the secret sauce. It’s that sense of emotional investment in these lovably screwed-up characters — the worry that things won’t turn out OK and the joy when they do — that’s the real magic behind Friendship is Magic. And that’s why it’s so hard to explain. Some people get there after watching just one adventure, and some might never get there at all.
For me, it took 26 episodes. But boy, am I glad I cracked. Best Night Ever? Best episode ever. ■