Back in my day, the airwaves were saturated with cheap cartoons made (at least in part) to sell toys. We boys got G.I. Joe and He-Man and Transformers. Girls had it worse: The Saturday-morning animated cartel determined that they would better appreciate, say, The Care Bears, The Smurfs and the original My Little Pony—bits of fluff with lots of innocuous plotting, insanely stereotypical characters, odd musical interludes and enough saccharine to gag a killer whale.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a lot like that—only good.
This latest My Little Pony incarnation (technically the fourth generation of a long-running toy/entertainment line) is one of pop culture's unlikeliest success stories. Launched in the fall of 2010 on the little-watched Hub, the Hasbro Studios production featured the exploits of bookish purple unicorn Twilight Sparkle and her Ponyville friends: the cowboy hat-wearing Applejack, bashful-but-kind Fluttershy, gregariously girlie Pinkie Pie, tomboy speedster Rainbow Dash, and über-fashionista Rarity. Its introduction was greeted with a universal nicker from most of the world. I mean, how revolutionary can a 22-minute commercial targeting 6-year-olds be?
Pretty revolutionary, it seems.
My Little Pony quickly became the Hub's most-watched program, and the audience kept building. By the end of the first season, 4 million people were tuning in. (To compare, the much-vaunted Mad Men's Season Six finale drew 2.7 million viewers—the highest in the show's history). Viewership has grown even more since then, and it wasn't just the intended audience—girls between the ages of 3 and 11. It became a raging hit among teen girls and twentysomethings too. Soon we began to hear about "bronies," young men who never miss an episode. Geek culture was awash in ponies. Mash-ups featuring Twilight Sparkle and her equestrian amigos began proliferating on YouTube. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic became the most buzzy and blogged-about show this side of The Walking Dead.
Why so successful? The series, it would seem, gives us a paradox: It's both remarkably hip and utterly guileless, simultaneously self-aware and sincere. Its writers are sharp and witty, offering nods to both the homegrown culture that's sprung up around the show and non-Ponyville pop culture as a whole. Example: When Weird Al Yankovic lent his voice to a pony recently, bursting into melody, Pinkie Pie asks him, "Did you just steal my song?"
And yet there is not a hint of knowing irony to be found anywhere. It's as if the land of Equestria does not allow postmodern cynicism to enter its borders. Absolutely no eye-rolling allowed. It's all very sweet, but not sickeningly so. Nice, but feisty.
No televised phenomenon is without its detractors, of course. Writing for a Ms. Magazine blog, Kathleen Richter began with the headline "My Little Homophobic, Racist, Smart-Shaming Pony," and then went on to wonder why black ponies were subservient to a white-winged unicorn and argue that Rainbow Dash was intended to give the impression that "all feminists are angry, tomboyish lesbians."
Admittedly, Rainbow Dash does exhibit a rainbow, now a symbol of the gay movement, but My Little Pony has always featured rainbows, going back all the way to the days of Noah himself. (Besides, creator Lauren Faust directly refuted Richter's assertions.) My take: The ethos in question informs us that people with different personalities and interests can still be the best of friends. A pretty good message, I'd say.
There is magic, of course. Flying horses and unicorns can make things float or, if they're in a fix, zap things with magical blasts. Pegasi can alter the weather. Considering the very youngest of viewers for a moment, I should note that the show does feature some kinda scary monsters at times, and that ponies can land in perilous situations. And because the show does try to teach little lessons on occasion, it's almost guaranteed that a few of them won't line up exactly with your family's values.
Overall, though? My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic turns out to be far more than just a half-hour of product placement. Sweet messages and surprising wit coupled with a serious amount of sincerity help this little hoofer soar.
Pinkie Pie's primacy as the pinnacle party-planner in Ponyville is piqued when a pony named Cheese Sandwich (voiced by Weird Al Yankovic) clops into town. "Be it wingding, hoedown, hootenanny or shindig, I'm your pony," he says. And he wants to horn in on the process of planning Rainbow Dash's birthaversary party.
Pinkie feels overshadowed by the flashy Sandwich and wonders whether she should give up party planning altogether. But then she challenges Cheese to a "goof off," wherein the person who can make Rainbow Dash laugh will be the party's official headliner.
"And the loser?" Twilight Sparkle asks.
"Doesn't," Pinkie says, a foreboding chill in her voice.
But after realizing the competition itself is spoiling Rainbow Dash's party, Pinkie Pie graciously forfeits, and her friends tell her that she'll always be Ponyville's best resident party planner. Better yet, Cheese and Pinkie join forces to give Rainbow Dash the best party ever.
"Three's a Crowd"
Twilight Sparkle is entertaining her visiting sister-in-law, Princess Cadance, and plans for the two of them to spend the day at an exhibit of artifacts from the famed magician Starswirl the Beard. Alas, Discord arrives to make a mess of things: The tellingly named mismatched dragon has what he calls the "Blue Flu" and wants some serious care. "Isn't that what friends are for?" he asks. "Taking care of each other?"
Twilight and Cadance reluctantly tend to the dragon until he tells them that there is a cure: a flower found at the other end of Equestria. When they find the huge flower and pluck it, a massive worm-beast (tentacles flapping out of its mouth) attacks the ponies. They finally force the worm back into its hole with blasts from their horns.
When they return to Discord, they discover that the dragon made the whole sickness up. "You passed the friendship test!" he says. And while Twilight's bummed that her day with Cadance was spoiled, Cadance replies, "We may not see each other very often, but I know you'll always be there when I need you. Just like she was there for you, Discord."
Oh, Discord sneezes on people and blows into a handkerchief (which then flaps away). He sneezes away a house, revealing a pony standing by a bathtub, her hair wrapped in a towel.