Confound These Ponies (Friendship Is Witchcraft)

Dun-dun dun dudun! Dun-dun dun dudun!

April is Fanworks Month, where we take a break from the show for a few weeks and celebrate the creativity of the brony community by examining fanworks with the same seriousness and critical eye as regular episodes. This week is the abridged series Friendship Is Witchcraft by Sherclop Pones.

I talked last week about the fun of watching new genres emerge, and Friendship Is Witchcraft is an example of another young new-media genre. There’s nothing new, of course, about parody dubs. They go back at least to 1966 and What’s Up Tiger Lily, and probably further. Abridged series, as introduced by LittleKuriboh with Yu-Gi-Oh the Abridged Series in 2006, are little more than a refinement on that idea, with the added element of cutting down (or occasionally adding to) the work being parodied. Nonetheless, it has been quite entertaining to watch imitators multiply and diversify.

What abridged series do, in general, is a process of recontextualization. By taking the visuals of the original work and juxtaposing them with new audio, they create a dissonance that can be exploited for humor. This dissonance can occur as a result of seeing familiar characters behave in unfamiliar ways, or it can simply result from imperfections (intentional or otherwise) in the match between the new story and the visuals, or simply telling a funny story using those visuals. Most abridged series focus on the last two for humor, taking their cue from Yu-Gi-Oh the Abridged series, which does not require any knowledge of the original show to enjoy.

Friendship Is Witchcraft, however, relies primarily on the dissonance of seeing beloved characters behave very differently, and as such can be read as a commentary on Friendship Is Magic as much as or more than a standalone work. When Twilight Sparkle takes her friends hostage and forces them to act out her slashfics, or Fluttershy heads an apocalyptic cult, the humor is in part the absurdity of the situation, but it’s primarily that the Friendship Is Magic characters would never do anything like that, even though the broad strokes elements of the characters are the same–that is, Twilight Sparkle is still a bossy nerd and Fluttershy is still soft-spoken and self-effacing. The characters, in other words, are not overwritten but recontextualized, just like the images of the show.

The natural question, then, is what does this recontextualization accomplish? What does Friendship Is Witchcraft transform Friendship Is Magic into? Not unsurprisingly, the answer is pretty straightforward: a geeky cartoon comedy with meme depot and cult elements that would be right at home on Adult Swim.

Take, for example, the series’ fifth and best episode, “Neigh, Soul Sister,” a parody of the second-season Friendship Is Magic episode “Sisterhooves Social.” Before it’s even possible to discuss it, we have to cover several elements of continuity from previous episodes: Pinkie Pie is an orphan who dabbled in illegal time-distorting magic in an attempt to bring back her parents. Robots who don’t know they’re robots live among the ponies and will be destroyed if discovered, and Sweetie Belle is one. Rarity and Applejack fought in a war together years prior, as a result of which Rarity is traumatized, Applejack considers her a coward and deserter, and Rarity considers Applejack a war criminal. Finally, as I mentioned previously, Fluttershy leads an apocalyptic cult that worships the Smooze, and Rarity is a member.

The episode itself primarily follows Sweetie-Bot (as the fandom has named her) as the ponies around her repeatedly fail to recognize her true nature despite it being completely obvious. In a broad sense it follows the plot of “Sisterhooves Social,” in that Rarity and Sweetie-Bot fight, Sweetie-Bot latches onto Applejack as her “new sister,” and Rarity takes advantage of a festival celebrating sisterhood to demonstrate that she really does care about Sweetie-Bot.

Alongside this, however, are two running subplots. First, instead of being angry at Sweetie Belle for disrupting her fashion business, Rarity is angry because Sweetie Belle is messing up her preparations to help Fluttershy summon the Smooze during a solar eclipse to usher in the end of the world. Rarity then ditches the eclipse ritual to go to the sisterhood event, because she “wanted to save [Sweetie Belle’s] soul.” Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie’s time-distorting brew in the previous episode is apparently causing parents to return from the dead.

It should be apparent by now that, despite using the actual episode’s visuals, this doesn’t have enough connection to the original show to even qualify as a parody of Friendship Is Magic. At the same time, it is clearly parodic in tone, so what is it parodying?

The answer is actually in the second episode, “Read It and Sleep,” where Twilight Sparkle is depicted as an obsessive fanfic writer who ships Rarity and Applejack. Just as Friendship Is Magic depicts ponies as geeks, usually in a very positive light, Friendship Is Witchcraft parodies geeks, especially bronies. In that light, it becomes clear why it is so much more of a meme depot and cult show, and why it keeps tossing in “dark” and “edgy” elements like making Fluttershy a bunny-burning cult leader or Rarity a traumatized veteran.

Friendship Is Witchcraft, when it boils down to it, is not a parody of Friendship Is Magic; it’s a parody of Friendship Is Magic fans and fanworks. Fluttershy’s apocalyptic cult has nothing to do with her depiction in the show, and everything to do with the fan-character Pinkamena (a psychotic, depressive, murderous version of Pinkie Pie) or the serial-killer Fluttershy in the .MOV series; it mocks these dark versions of the show by making Fluttershy evil without altering her social vulnerability or adorable shyness.

Twilight Sparkle is the main focus of this mockery of fandom and fanworks, with her excruciatingly long, unimaginative fanfic that does nothing but reiterate tired romance-novel clichés with thinly veiled versions of Rarity and Applejack. But it’s the fan tendency to try to read the show as a cult program that gets most viciously (and deliciously) parodied, and nowhere is that done as much as in “Neigh, Soul Sister.”

First, Sweetie-Bot herself is a clear reference to the remake of Battlestar Galactica, a notorious example of a cult show that showcased every flaw in the approach. Much of the plot involved evil robots, the Cylons, infiltrating human society, somehow managing to not be noticed despite being, you know, not made of meat, only having a handful of different physical appearances, and according to the pilot, having spines that are shaped differently from normal humans’ and glow bright red during sex. More to the point, the show blatantly abused the cult approach, clearly having no idea where it was going while emphatically insisting that it was planned out (as fans often put it, referencing a common early tagline, “The Cylons may have a plan, but the writers don’t.”)

As I’ve mentioned before, the inherent problem with a cult show is that it either has to have a pre-planned ending and therefore a fixed expiration date (as with Babylon 5), or else it has to lie to its audience and pretend to a plan where none exists (as with The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica). “Neigh, Soul Sister” plays with this, not only with the recurring robot element (which does not appear again after this episode), but also with Pinkie Pie’s spell: Every time it brings someone back from the dead, a counter in the corner of the screen ticks up. The counter displays a maximum of nine, but has not reached it by the end of the episode, suggesting more to come; it also references what appeared to be a throwaway pun in the song that accompanied Pinkie’s Spell: “A kitch-en time saves nine.”

Like a good cult show, the callback to the pun tells the viewers that there were clues, and if we had caught them and interpreted them properly, we’d know what was happening now–and by extension, what will happen in the future. It’s an open invitation to engage in what I referred to as the paranoid viewing style in my article on “Double Rainboom”; Friendship Is Witchcraft is asking us to treat it as a conspiracy, to scour it for clues and hints and try to predict the future. But of course it’s not playing fair; despite the ominous build-up Pinkie’s revival of the dead has no real pay-off in later episodes. It just causes her parents to come back as the Cake babies in the midst of an episode about something else entirely.

Put another way, where “Double Rainboom” is a version of Friendship Is Magic where Rainbow Dash won the Running of the Leaves and turned the show into a meme depot, Friendship Is Witchcraft is a version where Rainbow Dash won the Running of the Leaves and turned it into a cult show. However, “Double Rainboom” doesn’t appear to understand that it’s doing something different from Friendship Is Magic, and tries to play it straight. Friendship Is Witchcraft, meanwhile, understands what a terrible idea a cult version of Friendship Is Magic would be, and plays it as ridiculous as possible.

By being an utterly (but hilariously) terrible cult show, Friendship Is Witchcraft turns a parodic spotlight on the fandom itself. As I’ve mentioned, fandoms tend to be, collectively speaking, kind of terrible at figuring out why they like the target of their fandom. Pony fans seem at times to be absolutely determined to make it a cult show–already, barely two months after Season 3 ended, there are message board threads and YouTube videos speculating about what will happen in Season 4, as if the answer to that question can be found in the events of previous episodes. Friendship Is Magic simply doesn’t work that way; it’s not a show with complex overarching plots, either on a seasonal level or across seasons. It doesn’t seed clues to future episodes in past ones. Simply put, there are no rewards for taking the paranoid approach here–but because that approach has been the norm for geeky television since Buffy (which started, I am horrified to realize, when the average brony was five years old) many of the fans don’t know how to watch any other way.

So my advice would be to relax, kick back, and watch some Friendship Is Witchcraft. Laughing at ourselves, and the quirks and excesses of our community, is always healthy. We could probably use some more of it.

Next week: Fanworks month is over! We’re back to the show. And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Canterlot to be born?

14 thoughts on “Confound These Ponies (Friendship Is Witchcraft)

  1. since Buffy (which started, I am horrified to realize, when the average brony was five

    Congratulations, you have made me feel old.

    In other news…

    Perhaps my bad experience with FiW was that I went into it expecting it to play with the characterizations… since, y'know, the primary strength of FiM is its characterization… and what I got instead was this parody of the fandom. I won't call it “cheap shots” because Celestia-knows plenty of those jabs are richly deserved, but it does feel a bit… I don't know.

    It doesn't help, of course, that I didn't get the joke at the time. I knew “Read it and Sleep” was a parody of fanworks, but I didn't realize that was what the rest of it was doing as well. Of course, “Read it and Sleep” was the one I liked best (by which I mean, I still kind of liked it even after the novelty wore off), so that means I'd probably like the others better if I went back and watched them, and indeed a lot of it makes more sense in retrospect. However, even “Read it and Sleep” dragged out its joke for far too long (YMMV, but I personally just can't stand the “drag it out” gag that plagues so much animated comedy) and was just so… ugly, that I spent more time looking away than laughing.

    Anyway, sorry to be a rambling, semicoherent downer. Now, a question… after you polish off S2, are you going to review the comics?

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  2. How do you think I feel, Sylocat? I'm the same age as Buffy–I was a high school sophomore at the exact same time that she was. Which makes it odd that I hated the show when it first came out, and didn't start liking it until after I'd seen the new Doctor Who and was better able to appreciate what Buffy was doing.

    For me the key thing in FiW–the thing which makes it not come across as mean-spirited–is that I don't get any sense that it's holding itself above or apart from the fandom it's mocking. It's not “Ha ha, you people suck,” but rather “Ha ha, we kinda suck, don't we?”

    I have been thinking about that very question. The main issue is that Season 4 is going to be 13, not 26, episodes, and I don't want to start reviewing it until all of it has aired. That means I need to delay things by a couple of months, if it airs when I suspect it will.

    So I'm considering having both a Fanworks Month and a Licensed Works Month after Seasons 2 and 3. The main issue is finding enough licensed works to do it. The comics, obviously, but are any of the storybooks worth reviewing–and more importantly, do any of them have enough substance to spin 1500+ words out of? And I'm not touching the stupid phone game with a 10-foot pole…

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  3. “The main issue is that season 4 is going to be 13, not 26, episodes.” Where did you hear that? I thought season 4 was going to be a full 26 episodes.

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  4. Sorry, my bad. I meant to say that I was expecting it to be 13 episodes, and it's going to be 26 instead, which means I need to delay when I start reviewing it until all 26 are over.

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  5. The storybooks are good, though not exactly substantial.

    I do think “Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell” has some intriguing material, such as Cadance's surprisingly-creative origin story, the cameos by Gilda and Trixie, and how it all ties into Twilight's struggle with the amulet (the amulet subplot is predictable, but predictability isn't necessarily a drawback with FiM). You could probably get a decent analysis out of it.

    “Under the Sparkling Sea” is even more simplistic, and it's notable primarily for the art designs (the Mane ponies look a bit too earlier-gen, but the seaponies look great and the background paintings are UNBELIEVABLY gorgeous and imaginative… seriously, pick up the book just for that) and its fascinating-but-probably-not-canonical addition to the world-building. Those are two things that are a bit trickier to work thematic analysis out of in the absence of deep story material, but it might be worth a try.

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  6. Funny story: I actually watched FiW before I watched a single episode of the main show. I guess there's a lower self-image barrier to entry on an obviously-darker parody than an actual children's show for girls. Episode 5 of FiW is actually what convinced me to watch a few episodes of the main show (I had the good chance to pick two at random before starting at the beginning to get a representative taste), because even through all the parody elements the (mostly unchanged) actual plot of show's episode shone through clear enough that I could tell I would have loved to see it the original way.

    To be fair, before even doing that I'd watched the first few minutes out of curiosity (basically the part where they accomplish ten minutes' worth of stage setting in their minute-or-so cold open, smoothly) and deduced that “Wow, quality that good speaks for itself. Good on them”. But it was a distanced assessment, an acknowledgement that it was a cut above at what it was trying to do but still doing something I probably didn't need to watch. Like, when I visit home I sometimes do observe the mostly-Disney-and-Nick shows my little sisters watch on TV and make judgement calls about which ones I do and don't respect (and there are one or two I disrespect so passionately I won't let them watch it while I'm stuck within earshot), but I wouldn't watch any of them on my own time. For the ponies, it was watching a silly parody that wasn't even directly targeting the show that convinced me it was (or could be) *for me*.

    On an unrelated note, all your talk about the difference between “Cult” shows and what we've actually got in FiM makes me curious what you're going to say when you get to the season three opener, which I felt clobbered us with the most over-the-top-clumsy “cult”-ening I'd ever seen. Not just by dropping empty foreshadowing and bringing back Luna just to not do anything and adding the heretofore-unhinted-at “crystal” ponies, but by trying to pretend this was the climax to an arc for Twilight when it really wasn't.

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  7. *Good sense*. I had the good *sense* to start with episodes from the middle rather than the beginning. Now I think of it that was mostly me assuming it'd get better after finding its feet, which proved to be correct.

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  8. I think it's fairly common to start out liking the fanworks, and then get into MLP from there. Heck, I know a couple of people who *only* like the fanworks–they've tried the show and don't like it, but they do enjoy the fanfics or Friendship Is Witchcraft or something like that.

    I call them metafans–fans of a fandom, but not the thing the fandom is based on–and it's not unique to MLP. My ex-fiancee was a Homestuck metafan, for instance.

    As for the attempt to cultify the show in Season 3, well, why do you think I keep bringing it up? When I know I'm going to be tackling something in a later article, I try to seed some of the groundwork into earlier articles.

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  9. [FiM] doesn't seed clues to future episodes in past ones

    I know I'm cherry-picking here, but I'm not sure I'd entirely agree with that. Lauren Faust's interview for the Bronies bonus disc, and some of her replies to questions on Twitter, both suggest that she was doing exactly that at times in Season 1. For example, with regard to Twilight's power surge in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles”, Faust says that it would have had a bearing on “other stuff I planned that didn't come to be.” Similarly, there were apparently certain clues being laid down as to how each of the Mane Six's stories would end.

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  10. Hmm. I'd have to watch the interview to be able to respond in detail, but it seems to me that there's a difference between foreshadowing and the kind of catering to paranoid viewing that cult shows do.

    I'd need to sit and think a bit before I could elucidate precisely what that difference is, however, but I think it has to do with whether and how the show calls out the clue.

    Either way, it would perhaps have been better to say that FIM doesn't have myth-arcs of the sort that allow for this kind of clue-seeding.

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