The cold opening of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has Twilight singing optimistically about how everything is going to be fine. She trots through the town as people join her in song and dance, reflecting the wonderful day that greets Ponyville. As she builds up to the final note, water is dumped on her head. Twilight admonishes Rainbow Dash for the act, only to see Rarity as the culprit, who for some reason now possesses Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark. Twilight says, “Something tells me everything is not going to be fine,” and for a moment I expected to hear this sound. In a season that had me growing more and more uncomfortable, that intro does very little to help matters.
Let’s be direct: Hasbro is no longer interested in courting bronies and MLP’s adult fanbase. Why they decided this a matter up for debate, and a question I explore later in the post, but the more interesting question right now is how. Usually, even as a show goes through its trials and tribulations during its more questionable period (Community, Up All Night, Heroes, The Killing), its more fervent fanbase sticks with it until the end. And I certainly can’t deny that MLP will indeed maintain a sizable brony community as it continues through the next couple of seasons.
Unlike those shows, however, executives and creators try their damnedest to keep the dwindling fanbase alive and active. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Hasbro seem to have no such agency, putting together a series of problematic yet calculated decisions that seem more and more likely designed to put off the bronies. The thriving communities, obsessed with fan parodies and homages – many of which I am a fan and supporter of – have been given the cold shoulder after years of productivity. The writing, with its emphasis on more mature relationships and complexity in an tricky and confusing world, has given way to simpler, straight-forward stories with predictable endings and one-note characterization. MLP, ironically, has reverted to the cute and simple show that it inherently is, instead of the unique show that it started out to be.
The title of this episode is “Magical Mystery Cure,” a play on the Beatles’s album “Magical Mystery Tour,” which is cute but rather meaningless. It isn’t as if the episode makes any references to the Beatles, which is odd since one of the many cool things about the show was that it enjoyed its references quite a bit. Other than the obvious pun, there’s really no reason to call it this. I suppose the fact that the episode is a musical might have been the inspiration, but that’s tenuous at best, and it might have been a bit more creatively constructive to make a pun based on an actual musical than an album. This is nit-picking, but I nit-pick only when a piece of entertainment does little else to engage me.
It probably began with the Derpy incident – a clusterfuck of proportions that made the “dickwolves controversy” look like a joke, although it may have truly started with Lauren Faust’s departure, a moment that in retrospect seems odd, since Faust (according to Tara Strong on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast) excitedly ran to Strong with a whole heap of ideas for the show’s reboot. To depart from the show and its success so suddenly seemed bizarre, but we all chalked it up to Faust simply wanted to pursue different things. Which is fine, but very strange, given everything that was going on.
MLP’s fanbase, truth be told, was not established authentically (although it became authentic over time and grew genuinely). It was an ironic response from 4chan’s /co/ board, which itself was a response to a bizarre screed from Amid from CartoonBrew. People jumped on board mainly to prove him wrong, but were delighted to find a smart, hilariously fun and engaging show that just happened to star cartoon ponies. So many great things came from this – charities were born, communities were made, friendships were established – and I really hope that all that will continue.
To Hasbro original ultimate goal, money was spent on the toys, too. The overall stock of the new network seemed strong, and the MLP fanbase fostered a tiny but growing supplement with its other shows: Pound Puppies, Transformers Prime, GI Joe: Renegades. But what happened? Pound Puppies lost members of its own staff, Transformers Prime’s schedule became scattered, and Renegades was cancelled. Kaijudo’s ratings were a cruel joke. Besides Dan Vs. – an anomaly in so many ways that it kinda needs its own blog post – MLP grew way beyond the very network itself, via a demo that advertisers did not care for. MLP’s stock, in actuality, was simply not strong enough to carry the entire Hub.
With that worrisome issue in the air, the Derpy incident most likely sealed the deal. MLP was getting out of control and proving to be too much of a headache, a point of fact that the Hub could probably have dealt with if it meant anything to its other shows – which it didn’t. In some ways, the Hub had no choice but to double down on its original and intended 6-11 young girls demo, pushing the writing and aesthetics of the show to more cuter, simpler directions. Interesting badguys like Luna and Discord were made good. Continuity and clever callbacks were all but diminished. Complex characters with aspirational endeavors were moved aside for those one-note characterizations, emphasizing the stereotypes within the main cast instead of exploring the interesting backdrops of those characterizations. More music was added – and not the fun, comical tunes of season 1, but the JEM-esque onslaught of tunes throughout season 2 and 3. The finale all but doubled down on all this, with a very oddly told story that ended in ten minutes, then spending the rest of the episode turning Twilight into a princess, the epitome of 6-11 young girl fantasies.
Contrary to popular belief, “Magical Mystery Tour” does not use in media res to tell its story. It uses a straight-forward flashback/voice-over cutaway, which is structurally lazy in so many ways, where in Twilight mentions receiving a spell and reading it, trying to figure it out, the result of which causes her friends’ cutie marks to be switched. I’m not sure why this brief cutaway wasn’t the cold opening. I bet they felt showing Rarity with Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark was more interesting, the TWIST that turned Twilight’s song on its head. I posit that the mysterious spell and the switching of the marks on the Elements of Harmony would have been just as strong of an opening, probably stronger, because at least they wouldn’t have to force the flashback. Besides, even if they did use in media res, that would be just as problematic, since most TV shows poorly use in media res anyway. I doubt that MLP would have used it effectively.
Watching the season 3 finale of MLP, a pit grew in my stomach, that same pit that one gets when watching a cartoon clearly not for them. I never quite felt that before with MLP; it was only during the times I viewed shows like Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake that I felt that awkwardness, that growing knowledge of bearing witness to a show created for a demo completely younger than they are. There’s nothing wrong with this, although it was difficult to understand at the time. Something like Powerpuff Girls or Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends had a youthful, feminine-geared demo, but contained a cleverness and comic sensibility to be broad enough for everyone to enjoy.
MLP once had that in spades, but in an instant it was gone. Well, it was diminishing with every episode truth be told, but the finale sealed it, and it sealed it in such a direct way that it seemed offensive. Of course, it wasn’t – it’s just that I never seen a show directly push away one audience to curtail another. It’s through that ironic lens that I laughed, cheered, and applauded the finale, watching in astonishment its disregard for not only the bronies, but for the very nature of straight-forward storytelling. The first season would have taken the idea of mix-and-match cutie marks to insanely hilarious levels; instead, they opted to solve them via simple, bland songs (songs that were musically inferior to episodes before it). By the 13-minute mark, the conflict was solved. We then watched Twilight get her wings and become a princess, which, well, wasn’t really her goal in the first place. But she was cheered on by her friends via another song, and for some reason it lasted several more minutes until the end. Nary an attempt at a joke in all that time.
And so we find ourselves back to the very core issue of insulting a valuable, smart demographic (6-11 girls) with the assumption that they like the simple, pretty things, indirectly caused by the bronies themselves. Networks and executives fall so often for this trap, forcing “mediocre magical royalty” related stories within a spell of pink and purple and singing to appeal to that specific demo with little concern for logic, reason, character or wit (see: Winx Club, Strawberry Shortcake). This in turn causes more people to claim that shows like this are too girly for them – and who can blame them? – and we repeat the cycle of providing half-assed, bland cartoons for young girls.
During the flashback sequence, after Twilight reads the spell that leads to the switched cutie marks, Twilight’s narrative voice says, “I cast the spell to find out what it was, but nothing seem to happen. But now I know that something DID happen!” What a cringe-worthy line. I’m reminded of a REALLY awkward moment in part 2 of “The Crystal Empire” premiere. In it, Twilight and Rainbow Dash race down a huge flight of stairs, and Twilight unloads a barrage of exposition to her blue flying friend. I have enjoyed DHX’s animation so far, but there’s some real laziness to this scene. Tara Strong reads that exposition flatly and doesn’t even bother to incorporate heavy breathing, the kind of breathing one might do when talking and sprinting at the same time. The sound effects are repetitive and the shots are uninteresting, with a staircase that seems endless. The episode kind of gets worse from there, and it’s a microcosm of the season as a whole.
I can’t really fault Hasbro for moving the show in this direction. Their hand was forced. Bronies had little to no interest to exploring the other content on the Hub, despite the network’s hope. Bronies more often than not got their fix on Youtube and via other means; sure, some watched them on their DVRs but certainly not enough to satisfy the Hub’s advertisers, who pay millions of dollars for a specific 6-11 demographic.
Here’s the important thing: running a network is not running a toy company. In the past, Hasbro could offset costs between other networks and advertisers and studios to produce a generic toy-based cartoon. Hasbro would put up the money as it kickstarted a toy line, while networks negotiated with advertisers for commercials of cereals and toys, while hiring the cheapest animation studios around to produce mediocre content, simple in every aspect to keep S&P off their backs. It was a win-win all around. But now that Hasbro is running their own network, a toy line isn’t enough. I cringe when people say they buy MLP toys because it’s a moot point; advertisers foot the bill for the show’s production, and not enough bronies watch the Hub to return advertisers’ investments, who WANT 6-11 year-old girls – not 20+ year-old guys – focused on one show.
When someone watches The Simpson, there’s a fairly good chance they’ll watch Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, and American Dad. FOX can maximize the Animation Domination shows via crossover appeal and keep a relatively steady audience for a solid two hours, which makes advertisers happy. Bronies had no such crossover appeal, focusing on one show and ignoring the rest. For a while, the Hub tried to cultivate that audience, but I can’t imagine advertisers were happy. Very few members of that adult fanbase delved into the other shows the Hub had to offer, while most of them aggressively courted MLP to more and more extreme directions with their parodies, fan fiction, shipping ideas, mash-ups, and the like. Hasbro had no choice. Bronies were a wonderful ride, but it was time to get serious about making money.
And so the Hub’s crackdown was swift. Hasbro issued Cease & Desists to two of the most promising fan productions – Friendship is Warcraft and Fighting is Magic, both of which run counter to the demographic. The writing was forced into a softer, quieter direction. Rumors abound of a human-based MLP spin-off. I know M.A. Larson, Amy Keating Rogers, Cindy Morrow, Dan Polsky and the rest are capable of better, but with a network breathing down your neck, forcing Crystal Empires and alicorns and princesses and nary an explanation for any of this, I suppose you have to work with what you got.
“Magical Mystery Cure” spends its final six minutes evolving Twilight into an alicorn – a unicorn/pegasus hybrid, and the cast marvel and sing her praises, and I’m not sure where this development comes from. Rainbow Dash happily accepts her as a “flying buddy,” and off-camera, Fluttershy sheds a tear. Rarity walks over and literally says, “Why, you’ve become an alicorn! I didn’t even know that was possible!”, a moment so brilliantly meta that it puts all of Pinkie-Pie’s fourth-wall shenanigans to shame. “Wow, you look just like a princess!” Fluttershy intones, swallowing the pain of Rainbow Dash’s cold neglect of her flying ability. Princess Celestia floats down and confirms it. “That’s because she IS a princess,” she says. She lists off a whole lot of qualities, but they really aren’t “princess” qualities, just qualities that awesome people have. Also, the other characters exhibited those qualities, but don’t expect their coronations any time soon. So I’m not quite sure why they made Twilight, specifically, a princess. Someone suggested that she “deserved it.” Well, sure. Just like every princess in every Disney movie? And we are aware how problematic that is for young girls, right? That idealistic goal of endearing royalty may be based on very strong and powerful lessons and qualities important to young girls, but children should learn these traits because they are simply right – not because they will lead to being a princess.
The ultimate irony is that MLP’s biggest fans led indirectly to this decision. And so we have Princess Twilight “Alicorn” Sparkle, who is essentially “done” with her studies but may have more to learn, or something. A long coronation-singing sequence follows, and everything is perfect. Say, remember season 1’s finale, that ended on a somber but hopeful tone? There’s none of that here, and every moment watching this episode my heart sank lower and lower, knowing full well what Hasbro was doing – pushing people like me away for its intended demo. I give credit to DHX, who animated a visually stunning episode, but I’m saddened by the creators and executives, forced to make such a flat episode as they go in a brand new direction.
I don’t blame the bronies. I don’t blame Hasbro, either. It was, in some ways, fated to happen, a brewing conflict of interest and demographics that forced the Hub’s hand. I truly hope that the brony fanbase finds comfort and excitement in future seasons with Twilight, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie-Pie. I’m upset that I won’t be part of this, because the show is no longer interested in courting my demo, even in the broadest attempt. I truly want to like this show, but I just fundamentally disagree with where it’s going. I want to happily recommend this show in all earnestness to other people – I sang its praises happily when the brony phenomenon took off – but I can’t in good conscience make that recommendation knowing that the show is egregiously girly again, with no hint of comic or narrative agency.
Twilight and the cast sing that “Everything Will Be Alright” during the reprieve, a pointed verse that signals a changing of the aesthetic guard while maintaining an air of comfort and familiarity. Everything will be okay, they soothingly sing as pieces are moved into place to make cuter, softer stories for younger and younger audiences. Everything will be just fine, they coo as this past season tools itself to alienate bronies and even causal fans to make way for girls who might stay tuned for that Strawberry Shortcake show or maybe that adorable looking My Littlest Pet Shop. And you know what? They’re right. In the end, everything will be alright, but it’s with a heavy heart that I announce I will not be there in the end with any of them, where Twilight might become, I don’t know, a double Princess or something. Twilight, the geek, the nerd, the adorable, intelligent-but slightly-clumsy pony, who studied hard because she loved magic and her friends and just simply wanted to be better at both, let her hair down and her wings out and got a pretty outfit, and became a princess. Congratulations, my dear, I suppose you did indeed earn it. I just won’t be there for the after-party.