» So Why Do You Love This Show, Anyway? The Secret Ingredient of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic

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.

Mark it zero, Scootaloo!

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.

An early Lauren Faust sketch of Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. Great designs that ooze personality.

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.

Windsor Castle for all of ponydom If you’re getting It’s A Small World vibes, it’s no coincidence.

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.”

Even though you’re biting a squirrel I still like you, Fluttershy. I like you BECAUSE you’re biting a squirrel.

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. 

Share your thoughts

  1. All. of. my. yes.

    The Gala felt as a pinnacle to me, with its overly-girly theme and all its broken expectations. This could have been another kids show, with only the aim of selling more toys and keeping little girls in a dream/fairy land. Instead, it shows genuine insanity building, is filled with broken dreams and the message that yes, life may be tougher than what it looks like. This message was incredibly unexpected for me when I started to watch the show.

  2. Thanks Renard! You bring up a good point about the toys and such, because Hasbro did use the Gala/Canterlot setting for package branding on toys and playsets around this time. If the goal of the show was truly to “sell toys” (to use another common criticism), we would have gotten something very different than an episode that ended with shame and property damage.

  3. The first episode where I felt that “emotional barrier” break was Sonic Rainboom. The interesting thing is that after that, the past episodes started feeling much better. When I first watched “Green is not your color” I thought it just a clever spin on a typical “girly cartoon” storyline. Returning to it after that, however, made the whole thing feel both more touching and funnier. And after going deeper into the fandom with fanfics, music and everything else, there was another similar step-up.

    That is all to say that we need to be conscious of that “clicking” before going insisting that people watch the show. For instance, an episode like “Spike at your service” is completely banal for someone that doesn’t care about the characters, but hilarious if you feel how the ponies relate to each other.

    • That’s a great point; I wasn’t completely on board by the point of Sonic Rainboom. But after Best Night Ever made the show “click” for me, I went back to rewatch everything with my new mindset and got a new level of enjoyment out of it. Much more of a focus on characters over plot.

    • I think you bring up some really good points, especially regarding the fan content. When I discovered all of it, I literally discovered ALL of it. My first encounter was with “Teens React to Bronies” on youtube, so I sort of headed into the fandom backwards. But the bewilderment of how and WHY someone would love the show so much kept my criticisms at bay. So I binged on all the brony content I could find before beginning to understand the community; then I took a careful peek at the show, and gradually fell in love, already having all the fan-created back stories and parodies in mind. Now I take a look at an episode and realize that in isolation a casual viewer might label it as “okay” at best. Perhaps the magic of FIM IS friendship, or at the very least some measure of understanding between the fandom and the creators that goes both ways, and amongst the fans themselves, a phenomenon made all the more apparent in light of the fact that it all orbits around a show that happens to be about friendship. I think when all of that, all these relationships and personal histories of real life individuals, is accumulated in a viewer’s mind, it’s hard not see the characters as having their own real lives and personalities (and generally love-ability) that Lauren Faust and her colleagues strove to give them.

    • It seemed to come out of nowhere, but then I remembered how they’d set it up as far back as Dragonshy.

      • I dunno, as much as people tried to explain and justify it, and it all does make sense, I still saw it as really unexpected, almost to the point of it being out of character, or done for the sake of comedy in that scene.

  4. Superb write-up, I really enjoyed how you opted to think outside the box of conditioned responses and address the more flavorful crux of the matter! In fact, not many people like to admit (or realize) that imperfection plays a huge role in the success of the story and its characters… the Mane6, and in fact the rest of Equestria, are heavily flawed, almost familiarly-flawed. If they happen to remind you of you and me, then that’s probably because they ARE like you and me… the only difference being is that their society is not quite as exploitative and its citizens are a little more resilient in how they make the best of bad situations.

    I will say, though, that the “love” behind the show is actually not that hard to explain… it only may seem hard to us because we’re culturally not used to a work of this kind. I came from a heavy Anime background, which to most people here means repetitive male-centric titles usually seen dubbed on TV, but only because Western broadcasters don’t really “get” female-centric titles which make up the crop of the best the genre has to offer (think Kino’s Journey or Haibane Renmei).

    Although contextually different, Card Captor Sakura (the original Japanese version) is in my opinion the spiritual ancestor of MLP:FiM, and just like our beloved equine series it too challenged traditional gender and age viewing roles, charming audiences (young and old, male and female, far and wide) with great storytelling, memorable characters, amazing artwork, gorgeous music, transparent merchandise tie-ins, unexpectedly-awesome action, and an engaging, well-paced, innocent and unironic plot that had you on the edge of your seat for all 70 episodes.

    So that’s where I came from, and thanks to that I was able to view MLP:FiM with no shame whatsoever… because ultimately it was all familiar territory for me. But I still loved it more than all the anime I had seen before me, because it had all the makings of a great anime series WITHOUT the language and cultural barrier that truly impeded the likes of Card Captor Sakura from delivering its inspiration to less-tolerant audiences.

    In short, to put it plainly, I love MLP:FiM because it is inspiring… a good show will give you a good chuckle, tear or escape from reality and then you move on with your life, but an inspiring show will make you want to change something about you or where you live or what you do for the better. Inspiration will cause people to band together in solidarity, and have fun meetups or organize cons or make an insane amount of collaborative music and art. And inspiration is ever-lasting… even if MLP:FiM as a series passes on our collective memories (since all things eventually have to end), it leaves in all of us a wonderous spark of inspiration that follows us throughout the rest of our lives, making us perhaps more open and receptive to future sources of inspiration in places we otherwise would have ignored.

    And most importantly, inspiration can be gritty, dirty and imperfect,… brilliant artwork and perfect music will never hold a candle to a work with pure flavour and soul (especially those that make you laugh). Boy-centric action toys and explosive blockbuster movies can make all the noise they want, but they can never monopolize the hearts of guys sick of it all and starved for something better, even if it is contrary to everything they’ve been taught. And so on.

    If it’s too vague a concept, that’s okay… so is love, and that too can take so many innumerable forms.

    • Good stuff, thanks, and I agree with you about imperfection. I have a long list of anime to watch at some point and will now add Card Captor Sakura to that list.

  5. I like the show because it doesn’t speak down to its audience as all to many “Kids” shows do, its and its a very character driven show, the entire series revolves around these characters, there interactions and how their bonds with their friends, family and the rest of the cast grow & develop over time, heck MLP:FIM has almost as many, if not more d’aww inducing and heartwarming moments then a classic Disney flick!

    And then theres the songs, they could have been generic and poorly written, but there not, there fun, catchy, and even when cheesy pretty dang enjoyable to listen to, I personally would put “This Day Aria’ on the same level as some of the villian songs from 90’s Disney flicks. And I STILL have Bad Seed stuck in my head even though its been over a month since that episodes aired! XD

    Not to mention its also set in a vast and interesting fantasy setting, A world filled with not just cute ponies, but genuine threats, Chimera’s Hydra’s Dragons, Diamond Dogs, Mianatours, Changelings, Windagos and Troll-tastic spirits of Chaos & Disharmony. All balanced out with a some-what modern fill as well to make it more relatable to the viewer (sure all the cities names being horse puns may be cheesy, but hey, it works!)

    My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is one of my favorite cartoons on TV ATM, because like Adventure Time, Dan VS, & Regular show it has an entertaining world & cast of characters, and a team behind it that you can tell really cares about and puts their best effort and heart into what they do!

    Heck even some of the series weakest episodes are more enjoyable then a fair amount of the rest of the drek you’ll find on TV these days.

    I for one am proud to be a fan of the show and will continue to support both it and the new comic book series as long as they last! *Which will hopefully be a long time, knock on wood!*

    In closing, Pony on, & Stay Brony My Friends!

    • The worldbuilding is something I should have mentioned since I feel it’s a high point. Hydras, minotaurs, windigos, cockatrices, all that stuff is golden.

  6. You make an excellent point, PictishBeast. Looking back at my own history with FiM, I can see the exact same thing happening. For me, it was unbelievably easy – it was partway through Season 2 that I discovered the show, and knowing more about it than watching the episodes without any additional information would allow for made me invest in the characters emotionally right after the first few episodes. I feel the same thing you describe – I care for the characters, as they are not archetypes or living devices, but living, believable personalities; they are much more than what may be apparent at a first glance.
    I agree that this is what makes the show work like it does. All the other elements that are so often praised are not unlike the ‘original’ five Elements of Harmony, each worthy of respect, but it is not complete without the sixth – the thing that you describe. Together, they turn into something on an entirely new level, beyond mere technicality. It’s the spark that breathed life into what could have otherwise been a beautiful but dead structure.
    It was a blessed decision to not simply make another extended toy commercial, but to go above and beyond the minimum requirements and produce a work of art that transcends its original intention. I thank Lauren Faust and others involved in making that happen.
    And I thank you, PictishBeast, for formulating the point so well.

  7. Personally, I think it’s successful because of nostalgia. And by that, I don’t mean the “Long Live the 90’s” nostalgia appearing everywhere. By that I mean on how the world is so…nice. Equestria is practically a utopian society, where there is kindness and love around the world, a place we imagine the world is like when we were younger, due to our simple minds. Not to mention how the Mane 6 has a terrific chemistry with one another, giving remembrance of the days in the 3rd grade hanging out with your best buds. Similar to series like “Rugrats”, which showed nostalgia by remembering days before 1st grade, trying to learn about the world on your own, and “Spongebob” on how the titular character is the very definition of a young child, MLP manages to tap into those times of childhood; especially since the main age range of bronies, which are teens and 20 year olds have a large amount of responsibilities, and try to handle the budding of our adulthoods. When we watch the show, our suspension of disbelief kicks in, and we just laugh, while nostalgia hits us, and forget about everything.

    • You know a lot of people say the same thing about Adventure Time, and to an extent I agree Adventure Time & MLP are somewhat Nostalgic, they take us back to the more enjoyable years of our childhood, while giving us a fun fantasy adventure with a world and characters we can find entertaining & care about.

  8. I personally like MLP precisely because the characters ARE screwed up. It’s no surprise that, when I first encountered the show, I was also watching a LOT of 30 Rock, and immediately saw parallels between the two casts (comon’–anyone who can’t see the similarities between Twilight Sparkle and Liz Lemon needs an irony transplant, and let’s face it–Jenna and Rarity might as well exchange tramp sta–er–cutie marks). Heck, you can often exchange episodes with just a few name changes:

    30 Rock to MLP: “Twilight Sparkle is head librarian for the town of Ponyville. A reclusive bookworm, her life starts to get complicated when her new boss, Princess Celestia, insists that the wild and disruptive draconequis Discord join her staff.”

    MLP to 30 Rock: “Jack sends Liz Lemon two tickets for the upcoming exclusive Grand NBC Gala. Each of Liz’s new friends, on learning of the tickets, insist they should be the one to go with Liz, and start giving her special treatment to earn her favor.”

    My point: if the characters on MLP weren’t so carefully nuanced, the ability to relate to them on an adult level wouldn’t be possible. The fact that many MLP episodes could port right over into adult TV with only a change of characters from ponies to people demonstrates that this show has been able to thread the line between kidvid and grownup tv with unerring precision. 20 years from now, people will talk about MLP the way they talk about the “brilliance” of Rocky & Bullwinkle today.

  9. Pingback: When Green Isn’t Your Color: Being a Colorblind Pony Fan | The Round Stable

  10. I think that the word “network” isn’t quite what Twilight was trying to do.

    Networking implies trying to form or further social connections to advance one’s place in society. And if that was her goal she would have succeeded: Standing next to Princess Celestia as she is greeting ponies, much less when TWILIGHT starts greeting half the ponies is networking GOLD. But Twilight initially perceives herself as having exactly the position in society (as a whole) she desires.

    She just wanted to spend time with Princess Celestia, her teacher, and geek out together about the details of magic. If changing in a clown suit would have bought them some space from the ponies who WERE trying to network, then Twilight’s only question would have been “rainbow wig, or solid red”… well, maybe not that extreme, but I think I make my point.

  11. I know this is older, but I just came across this and read it. It had some pretty interesting observations. For my own part, the thing that really struck me was one line from Celestia when Twilight Sparkle and crew were describing how horrible their experience had been and she says, “The Gala is always horrible”.

    I thought I was going to split a gut with that one because most animated shows with a “royal do” always show it as some pinnacle of achievement for the main character(s), and yet in this show the Head of State admits that that the affair always stunk. What makes it funnier is that she knew it stunk and still sent invitations to her favoured student and her friends, so they could attend and essentially fall flat on their faces. That one line put a whole different spin on her character

  12. The secret ingredient of MLP is Soylent Pink. It is a mind altering substance created from the bodies of human-pony hybrids which are made by mutating together the bodies of live ponies and kidnapped children within the laboratory dungeon of DHX. There was also a pact with the devil involved at some point in the production. Happy Nightmare Night!