Tree sap and pine needles, but no cutie mark. (The Show Stoppers)

I like that their singing has the same visual effect
as the cockatrice and Fluttershy’s Stare.

It’s March 4, 2011, and awesome is in the air. For once, however, the pop charts are topped by something that’s actually somewhat provocative, Lady Gaga’s weird and wonderful gay anthem “Born This Way,” which works equally well as an anthem for any group of social outliers and outcasts, plus opens with a unicorn. I’m not surprised a quick search of YouTube has turned up at least six different PMVs for it. In box offices, we have a brief respite from the usual post-holidays, pre-summer slump with Rango, which caught me completely by surprise and ended up being easily the best animated movie all year (though admittedly, its only real competition was Kung-Fu Panda 2, so that’s not saying much).

Ponies, alas, do not particularly share in the awesome this week. Which is not to say we have a bad episode; it is Cindy Morrow, and thus far she has been reliably, solidly mediocre. This week’s “The Show Stoppers” is no different.

Mediocrity is hard to write about. From a critical perspective, it’s much easier to praise a great episode, and easier still to tear apart a bad one–I fully expect next week to be the easiest My Little Po-Mo article I’ve written yet. A mediocre episode, however, gives little to work with; it simply doesn’t do anything interesting, and that makes writing about it hard.

From a creative perspective, mediocrity is again quite difficult to write about. Characters who sort of vaguely muddle through are much harder to write engagingly than characters who fail miserably, triumph masterfully, or barely scrape by. This, alas, is what Morrow finds herself up against in this episode, which is all about the Cutie Mark Crusaders being mediocre.

It makes sense for the CMC to be mediocre, of course: they are three ponies who have yet to discover what they’re good at, and therefore are basically mediocre at everything they do. Even though they do have talents (carpentry and repair for Apple Blossom, singing for Sweetie Belle, and stunts for Scootaloo), they do not recognize them, and thus end up creating a mediocre performance, a song which is entertaining and catchy but falls to pieces at the end. Even then, the CMC do not recognize how badly they are doing until the audience starts laughing at them–and when they win a comedy award, they learn the wrong lesson entirely from their adventure, and conclude they are gifted comedians.

To an extent, this is an attempt to examine and subvert the formula of the show. This is the first episode since the premiere not to end with a friendship lesson. The CMC have not learned anything, not acquired any experience, because (to reference our earlier discussion of von Kleist) they remain in a state of innocence, free of any pain or regret about their foolishness, but equally unable to grow. Only by passing through a painful adolescence will they ever reach a state of grace and self-actualization that makes possible a return to the good parts of childhood while avoiding the danger of stagnating in nostalgia.

There is a warning in this episode’s mediocrity, to beware the trap of nostalgia. There is a dearth of biographical information available on Morrow, but I know she graduated CalArts in 1995 and had her first real credit in 1997, which suggests the bulk of her childhood happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This era of cartoons is most likely the one for which she feels nostalgia, which would go a long way to explaining the musical number in this episode, which is a pastiche of the cheesy rock ballads of the 80s, and most particularly recalls Jem‘s evil rivals The Misfits. (It also goes a long way toward explaining the Scooby-Doo/Josie and the Pussycats-esque elements of “One Bad Apple,” but the less said about that abomination the better.)

Therein lies the problem, because everything about Jem was mediocre. It wasn’t alone; the 1970s and 1980s were an era in which English-language short-form animation was defined by mediocrity. Miniscule budgets, an exile of talent, aggressive monitoring by parents’ groups, and in the 1980s toy company sponsorship created a perfect storm that made bland, inoffensive, formulaic, and cheap the order of the day. Herein lies the trap.

Time for a new binary: There are basically two major reasons for bronies to watch My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The first is one we’ve been discussing at least since we started talking about alchemy, and is essentially revolutionary. Revolutionary viewers watch the show because they’re bronies; it gives them a way to connect to other bronies, and something to talk about. The core themes of the show are things that we can adopt as we put aside our fear of childish things: In a world dominated by capitalist, statist patriarchies (which is to say, a world dominated by institutionalized greed and violence), embracing and valuing “girly” things like rainbows and friendship and community is a revolutionary act.

Escapist viewing, on the other hand, watches the show because it allows one to forget, for a few minutes, that the world is dominated by greed and violence. It is a method of temporary escape, which is not at all a bad thing; to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, who I should think knows rather a lot on the topic of escapist fantasy, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” Escapist viewing seeks to return to a childlike state of innocence, and escape our responsibilities in this world.
Of course, the binary comes already subverted, courtesy of von Kleist. The revolutionary requires the escapist; to seek a better world we first must dream it. Unfortunately, it is very easy to get caught in that dream, to get swept up in nostalgia and forget what we have learned since. Just as the Cutie Mark Crusaders don’t know how bad their performance really was, it’s easy to forget that the innocence of childhood makes accurate self-evaluation impossible. For example, nostalgia can lead someone to make a pastiche of art that was bad to begin with, creating this episode’s musical number or (*shudder*) the entirety “One Bad Apple.”
If, as seems plausible, MLP is able to transmute geek masculinity into something new, it can only do so if we avoid that trap, and consciously bring the Fruit of Life it offers back with us into the real world. It is not enough to play in Eden/Equestria, then go back to a world of violence and greed and emotional isolation; if we are to build an Equestria on Earth, we can only do so by practicing the magic of friendship in our day-to-day lives.
Happily, most bronies seem to get this, at least judging by the general friendliness of every brony gathering (online and meatspace) I’ve been to and the existence of thriving brony charities.
Next week: Amy Keating Rogers rewrites O. Henry’s worst story with Rarity playing the role of the little brat, and it manages to be even worse than you’d expect.

(ETA: Boy, did I mess up. The version which initially went live had neither the correct article title nor the picture. Sorry about that; it’s fixed now.)

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