I have this habit of maintaining skepticism for properties with devoted fan followings. It’s why I’m slow to approach various things, like anything written by Joss Whedon, for instance. I think a lot of times, fan discourse creates this echo chamber that distorts criticism and analysis into oppositional extreme viewpoints (“OMG SQUEE I LOVE IT!!!!!” vs. “UGH WTF THIS SUCKS”). I don’t like mob mentality, and I have no desire to be swept up in cults of personality or commodity, nor do I feel the desire to wear any fandom I do subscribe to on my chest like a merit badge. So, when I do come over to these kinds of artistic properties, I do it on my own time, when I feel like I can make my own opinion. I’m sure this makes me sound really contrary, and maybe I just am, but I like to make sure my opinions are my opinions, to the extent that such a thing is possible in an exaggerated capitalist society.
Which leads me to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Which, in turn, I watched in the aftermath of encountering another story that has a devoted, niche fan following: John Dies At The End.
I wasn’t pleased with John Dies At The End, quite frankly. I know that it’s based on a book by David Wong, which is a pseudonym for someone who actually writes at Cracked.com (a website I like, for the most part). To be perfectly honest, after watching the movie I have no desire at all to read the book. It feels like a deliberate attempt on the creators’ parts to merge new-era Internet-style humor – flippant weirdness, a high emphasis on quotability as opposed to narrative – with a desire to make something akin to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension for the 21st century. There’s a sincerity in Buckaroo Banzai that’s missing in John Dies, though, or something like it. Both movies are creative to the point of tossing off ideas like a Halloween kid tossing candy wrappers while he plows through his pumpkin bucket, but watching John Dies do that felt like an utter chore.
Sure, it had some cool elements – I like the idea of a sentient organism that is ingested like a drug and gives people enhanced powers – but the story itself felt like it went nowhere and I couldn’t have cared less about the characters. In fact, I found them gratingly annoying. I was essentially done with the movie about 35 minutes into it. I watched the next 30 minutes hoping it would get better, and when it didn’t, I watched the rest of it because I was already that far along in the movie and figured I might as well finish it. It was one big waste of time that should have regaled me with its hip, flippantly surreal sensibility, but instead made me think of all the tendencies I hate in contemporary storytelling.
So, when I finished John Dies At The End, I felt like a cynical, frumpy lump of human. I wanted to watch something else, something radically different from that movie so I could reach some kind of equilibrium. It was then I noticed that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is available on Netflix. Now, I know that the show has a devoted following, and I know all about the bronies, the adult, male fans of a show that is, for the most part, aimed at young girls. I also know that the show is, like John Dies At The End, very much a popular property on the Internet, where people make memes and remixed videos and things from the show and its characters.
So, I hit play and watched the first episode. Which then led to the second episode, because it was a two-parter. And when I was done with that, I watched three more episodes before going to bed. And then I watched two more before writing this.
Unlike John Dies At The End, I actually cared about the characters on Friendship is Magic. Let me reiterate that: I had a more fulfilling experience watching pastel-colored unicorns and ponies discover friendship and get themselves into various shenanigans than I did watching two twenty-something douchebags fire off quips and deadpan silly dialogue for its own sake while fighting a string of increasingly incoherently sequenced monster battles. I am the target audience for John Dies. I’m a twenty-something man. I like surrealism and weird humor and non sequiturs. I like the Internet and memes and Cracked.com. I don’t mind watching movies that may be a little less-than-polished so long as there’s something special animating them. And yet, when confronted with something essentially tailor-made to someone else’s projected identity of who I am, I prefer to watch Friendship is Magic instead.
The fact is, Friendship is Magic is a very sweet, watchable, entertaining television show, and you don’t have to be a little kid to like those things. Adults are perfectly capable of enjoying something made with heart and sincerity too.
I liked the characterization on Friendship is Magic more than anything. The ponies at the heart of the show have distinct personalities that sometimes clash and sometimes agree, like you’d want from characters in any story. They don’t always get along, and they have their own individual desires and fears. They’re built off of a handful of key characteristics and developed as the story progresses, with their own backstories filled in by the episode. That’s smart writing in any genre.
The show is simply told and constructed, but not to the point of stupidity, and it never insults its audience by trying to dumb things down or speak down to the viewer. In fact, some of the episodes are rather cleverly written. It’s the kind of show I would feel good about my kids watching, if I had kids. Hell, I would even watch it with them and enjoy it as much as they do. (I would prefer they read, but if they must watch TV, they can start with Friendship is Magic and Adventure Time.)
Of course, being a kids’ show, Friendship is Magic does do a fair bit of moralizing, but the morals at the heart of the show are really admirable and heartfelt. The show makes a point of valuing characteristics that I would want more kids to pick up on, like compassion and humility. It also has a strong anti-bullying element that I wish I saw more often. There’s hardly any violence on the show at all, and I kinda like that. Not every story has to have violence in it to be interesting, and Friendship is Magic proves that. (There’s an Ursula LeGuin essay about the implied militancy of stories that demand the definition of conflict by the amount of warfare and fighting that I consider required reading for just about anyone, but I can’t think of the title right now.) The existence of this show creates a kind of variety that is sorely needed.
I guess what I’m saying in all of this is, I totally understand why people like Friendship is Magic now, and I appreciate the show quite a bit. I understand why the show has cultivated this diverse fandom of all ages and genders. Sometimes, you just want a sincere, heartfelt story, especially after something as calculated and obnoxious as John Dies At The End. Or, hey, you might be someone who likes both, which is fine; fandom shouldn’t be exclusive in nature. It’s like real life, where you can be friends with two people who are radically different from one another and wouldn’t be friends themselves because their personalities would clash too much. As for myself, I’d rather hang out with a story that’s comfortable with what it is than one that’s trying too hard to be what it thinks it should be.