Wednesday, May 23, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 69: It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

After much cajoling from my sister, I'm set to give Legend of Korra a look this weekend.  I never watched Avatar, but she assures me that I don't need to have done so.  We'll see; I'm not usually a fan of starting anywhere but at the beginning when it comes to entertainment consumption.  But hey, it's worth a shot.  Right?

After the break, my review of Bobcat's It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia and its sequel, Semper Fidelis.

NOTE:  This top section is only a review of It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia. My review of Semper Fidelis is featured after it.

Impressions before reading:  Although this story is new to me, I know that I've enjoyed everything else I've read by Bobcat.  I also know that he hasn't been looking forward to me reviewing these stories.  I further know that authors are often the worst judges of their own material.  On the whole, I'm optimistic, but we'll see.  I mean, it's not like it's a good sign when someone's embarrassed about their own work.

Also, if this is supposed to be a crossover with the TV show of the same name (albeit more traditionally spelled), then I should admit that I've never seen said show.  I'm pretty sure it isn't, though.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Applejack and Soarin both find their weekend plans undone, they decide to try their best to salvage the day while exploring the city of Fillydelphia.

Thoughts after reading:  If the last story I reviewed showed that, to quote its pre-reader for the second time in as many posts, "relationship building doesn't mean [the protagonists] end up head to haunches," then this story demonstrates another oft-overlooked truth: a shipfic doesn't need to have True Love as its endgame to be satisfying.  There's no reason a fanfic can't go a significantly lower-stakes route (for example, having its characters agree to go on a date sometime) and still be perfectly satisfying.  In fact, there are some sizable advantages to this approach, most notably that it's much easier to write a story which doesn't strain credulity about two characters meeting and getting along really well than it is to write one about two characters who pledge their undying devotion to one another after knowing each other for only a few thousand words.

[Edit: Wow, I was just re-reading that last sentence as I proofread this post, and it took me a while to make heads or tails of it.  I'm going to go ahead and leave it as-is; frankly, I'm almost perversely proud to have written something so garbled which is still grammatically correct (I think).  I tell you all what, some days...]

What Bobcat gives the reader on the shipping front is something that could have come straight out of real life (leaving aside the fact that the protagonists are talking ponies, obviously): two near-strangers end up spending some time together, find out they enjoy each others' company, and that's it.  The l-word is never even mentioned.  What will be the ultimate fate of the relationship between these two?  This question is left up to the reader to answer (sequel notwithstanding), which seems to me a refreshing bit of openness in the too-often rigid and by-the-numbers genre that is shipping.

The biggest problems in the story comes from its largest setpieces.  A Willy Wonka parody near the middle, for example, contains plenty of funny lines (my favorite: after the Wonka expy tells the troupe that "everything here is edible, even the grass!"  Applejack deadpans, "Uh, grass is already edible."), but falls flat overall, many of its elements seemingly present solely for the purpose of being included (as opposed to, say, because they're funny and/or plot-relevant).  When a parody becomes too literal and tries to shoehorn in too many references it stagnates, and that happens to a degree here.  It almost felt like the author was going through a checklist, dutifully marking off what scenes and cultural touchstones he'd included, which (as the weaker installments of any abridged series will readily demonstrate) isn't so much funny in its own right as it is funny-in-quotation-marks because the reader recognizes what you're doing.  A couple of other major scenes had similar problems, to the story's detriment.

But when the focus shifted to character interaction, the writing really shone.  As with previous stories by this author, there is no cause to complain on the technical front, and dialogue is exceptional when it's allowed to take center stage.  This may be another part of why the larger setpieces seemed to fall short compared to the rest of the story; while the narration in this piece is by no means poorly done, all of the story's highest points are marked by characters sitting down (metaphorically speaking) and having actual conversations.  AJ's accent is a little over-written for my tastes, but it's both consistent (something many writers seem to have trouble with) and perfectly legible at all times.

As for the characters themselves?  The author follows the example of the show's better episodes by allowing them to be comical without turning them into stand-up comedians.  AJ and the other major characters all have plenty of amusing lines, but they generally aren't out cracking jokes direct.  Instead, it's the way they interact with the world and other ponies that brings levity to the story.  Indeed, each of the major ponies is treated with a fair amount of respect, which keeps the occasional slide into more serious/syrupy territory from feeling out of place.  There may be jokes involving the main characters, but the main characters aren't the joke themselves, which is important in any story aiming for more than belly laughs.

The comedy in this story divides into two primary categories: character-based humor, and parody (I guess equine naming humor as well, but that's a staple of most MLP fanfics).  As I said above, the parody elements were of variable quality, though none stuck out as particularly atrocious.  The biggest laughs, though, were lower-key.  The sitcom-esque petty tribulations which AJ suffers offer an excellent blend of relatability and absurdity, and the interactions between the major characters at once felt genuine and were amusing in their own right.  Few writers are able to convincingly pull off small talk without making it boring, but this story shows what a powerful tool it can be when used correctly.

Star rating:    (what does this mean?)

Despite the merely adequate "big" scenes, this story has a lot going for it.  It's consistently funny, occasionally sweet (without ever abandoning its sense of humor), and is one of the only shipping/comedy stories I've read which works without making the shipping itself the joke.

Recommendation:  I think most readers will find something to enjoy here.  Even non-shipping fans will find that element of the story fairly inoffensive, and the comedy throughout is unfailingly funny.

Semper Fidelis (Warning: may contain spoilers for It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia):

Impressions before reading:  Although this is tagged as a sequel to the story above, the author warns in a pre-story note that it's of a very different tone than the first piece.  Apparently, it's more action/adventure and less humor.  Action/adventure would be a pretty significant departure from the romantic comedy stylings of Fillydelphia, but I'm game to give it a go.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After finally getting back in Spitfire's good graces, Soarin sets off for Sweet Apple Acres to see Applejack for the first time since the last story.  When he arrives, Big Mac informs him that AJ is gone, and what was supposed to be a pleasant vacation quickly turns into a nightmare.

Thoughts after reading:  This is indeed a completely different story from the first one.  Anyone looking for more of the same will be disappointed (but hey, the author and I both gave you fair warning, didn't we?).

Unfortunately, Semper Fidelis can't seem to decide what it is that it wants to be.  A classic romance?  A high-voltage action story?  An homage to 80's cartoon villainy?  A serious deconstruction of the same?  There are a lot of disparate elements here, and they don't work together terribly well.

The first of the story's five chapters sets a tone similar to Fillydelphia, though it makes clear that during a timeskip between fics things have gotten quite a bit more serious between Soarin and AJ.  The interactions between Soarin, Big Mac, and Applebloom are full of character-based humor, though the jokes now primarily turn around the main characters' budding relationship.  But from there, the story quickly gets out of hand.  Desperate battle scenes and emotionally fraught interrogations vie with a romantic storyline which can't seem to decide whether it's a product of its characters' desperation or if it is indeed True Love™ before both are drowned out by an apocalyptic nightmare come to life.

The problem isn't that any of these things are particularly ill done (though as I said, the romance is murky in terms of both intensity and author intent).  It's that they don't fit well together.  There are certainly ways to combine romance, terror, action, etc., but they can't simply be thrown into a blender with one another and be expected to create a harmonious whole.  The biggest problem with this story is that it varies so dramatically in tone as it goes along that it lacks any sense of cohesion.

I will add briefly, and say no more for the sake of spoilers, that this is technically a human in Equestria story.  I know that's a nonstarter for some folks, but I didn't feel it was gratuitous or unnecessary in the context of the end-of-the-world storyline.

Also, though I guess this might fall under the "disparate elements" category of complaint, the appearance of the Doctor didn't work for me.  Like so many other things in this story, it felt like an unwelcome intrusion from some other story, his banter and jury-rigged improvisations a poor match for either the darker elements of the story or the show-style portions.  He wasn't poorly written in and of himself, but he served no larger role in the story.

Still, there were places where the fic managed to shine.  Soarin's repeated improvisations in battle were always interesting to read about, and for the most part the fight scenes were remarkably suspenseful.  The main villain was given some absolutely chilling dialogue, and Rainbow Dash provided a few chuckles near the end.  But there was just no consistency of tone between any of those scenes; too often, my reaction to a new revelation was bemusement, rather than fascination.

Star rating:    (what does this mean?)

The writing remains top-notch in this story, and although it increasingly takes a backseat as the story progresses, Bobcat's casual dialogue is always a treat to read.  And through the entire piece, many scenes and lines are individually well done.  But they never combine into a coherent whole; this story feels like a jumbled mess more than anything else.

Recommendation:  For anyone who can't handle wild swings in tone, or who is looking for a tightly plotted action story, this isn't what you're looking for.  But readers willing to forgive the story for meandering from romantic comedy through horror on its way to high fantasy will find a lot of things to like here, as long as they're willing to do a little metaphorical fishing.

Next time:  Tonight I Shall Be Laughter, by Cloud Wander


  1. Wrong author for the next story, Chris! Haha. I was already depressed that 'Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying' isn't finished so you couldn't review it, and then I got all excited when I saw the author. Aannd then I got depressed again, haha. The author of 'Tonight I Shall Be Laughter' is Cloud Wander.

  2. Oops! Thanks for catching that before I went to bed. Where I should have been two hours ago, since I've got to be up early tomorrow...

    Right. Anyway, fixed!

    1. Is now a bad time to say that you spelt it 'Wanderer', not 'Wander'? Hahaha.

    2. Right. So. Apparently I'm to tired to make corrections. Take two, go.

    3. *too

      Dammit, I'm going to bed.

    4. It's a magnificent comedy of errors that's just beautiful to watch. You have made my day, haha. Get some sleep!

  3. Preliminary, haven't even read the reviews yet response to your intro: It's not so much that I'm embarrassed by them as I knew that there were certain things you listed as pet peeves that I knew they were lousy with.

    1. E.g. knew you didn't like AJ's accent written out, shipping stories, action stories.

  4. Actually having read the reviews, they were very fair. If there's one bad habit I've noticed in my writing, it's a tendency to shift moods rapidly, and Semper Fidelis is shaky in that regard. They've roughly where I was expecting them to be.

    It's just that with Semper Fidelis, I'd lived, breathed and worked it for a month. Despite that, it was still rushed since I wanted to get it done before I went on a month long trip out of the country. I was constantly asking for feedback from friends, working hard to make it my pony magnum opus. In fact, I'd intended it as part of a trilogy, which would explore the logistics of a long term relationship between the two (e.g. they live VERY different lives, and what compromise would be reached, or could one be reached)?

    Then I posted it on Equestria Daily and the reaction was mixed. I'm just not good with criticism, so the negative reviews outweigh the larger number of positive reviews. Combine that with a month long pony detox in a place where I didn't have regular internet access, and the fact that in my opinion Season 2 has seriously squandered what was there in Season 1, and I just decided "nope, I'm done." No part 3 of the trilogy; if I'm going to be a grown man writing stories about technicolor ponies, I'm after good feedback. Shallow and cowardly, I know, but the cost/risk benefit just isn't there.

    With this update, Chris, I'll be bidding this blog adieu for the most part. This is when I left for Honduras and stopped reading pony fics, so from here out the percentage of 6 star fics I actually read drops from "miniscule percentage" to "0." Thanks so much for putting my fics under the microscope; it helps validate the time I put into a part of my life that, having declared myself Brony No More for about 8 months or so, seems like a questionable use of my time in retrospect.

    I appreciate what you do here; I feel that fanfiction is a lower order of creative output, but for me and so many others, it's a great stepping stone. What this does is it helps us really figure out what works and what doesn't. The mostly positive reviews we get that tend to be one sentence with a couple of words misspelled are nice for warm fuzzy feelings, but they don't do much for growth. If I were to write Semper Fidelis today, I'd do things rather differently; Always Sunny, I don't think I'd touch much. But the criticism you gave me here would be the first place I'd look because you're so very fair, even when I'd rather that you just eviscerate something that pissed me off.

    TL/DR: So long and thanks for all the fics.

    1. It's sad to see you go. Your comments were some of the best on the blog, and I always loved to see what your thoughts were on some of the stories that came this way. I also loved your own stories.

      Never say that your time in this fandom was a waste of time. If you were able to learn and take anything from your time as a Brony, then it wasn't a waste of time in the slightest.

      BTW, thanks for reminding me I'm the only person commenting on this blog that likes Season 2 over Season 1.

    2. *tips hat* I wish you well good sir.

    3. pg13fresno I like both seasons more or less equally.

    4. I'm sorry to see you go Bobcat, though I can't say I'm really surprised. The fact that someone who didn't even enjoy the (post-S1) show or fandom for the most part still found my reviews worth reading always made me feel like I must be doing something right. I'm glad you've found my reviews fair, and I'm happy that I was able to help validate your time as a fanfic writer.

      If your future visits are as sporadic as you make it sound and as I expect, then I'll miss your comments, but it was nice to get your opinions to this point. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as much as you did, and good luck with your future creative endeavors.

    5. Oh, one thing. I felt slightly disappointed that you didn't share any thoughts on Soarin himself, since I took a background character with two lines and no agreed upon fanon and tried to put a unique spin on him.

  5. I skipped this one the first time through, if only because the title reminded me of a show I despise. But after finally sitting down, it's actually pretty good. Your review is pretty fair to its strengths and weaknesses.

    And next time, we get to the first of the three six-starred "Happy Luna" fics. For those not in the know (which would probably be no one here), "Tonight I Shall Be Laughter" was the winner of a contest Equestria Daily was running as a response to all the Sad!Luna fics at the time. And to its credit, it's the only one of those six-starred ones not to be based on that stupid "Luna in socks" meme.

    Friday can't come soon enough.

    1. Interestingly, that contest was my idea, but the timing was such that it started while I was in Honduras. So I never even got to read the Happy Luna Fics I wanted as an antidote for everyone doing Emo Luna... since by the time I had the time, I didn't care. Ah well.

  6. Also, it's ironic that a romance fic intended as a "see? SEE? YOU CAN DO THIS BETTER" response to shippers (I wasn't much into shipping before I wrote it, I just saw some fanart of these two and had fun) has the update number of 69, considering that they most assuredly DON'T end up head to haunches.

  7. It's Always Sunny is a fic I consistently hold up (along with The Descendant's marvelous The Somewhere Cycle, which sadly won't be showing up on this blog) as some of the best writing in the fandom, and it is absolutely my favorite shipfic ever. I'd completely forgotten about the Willy Wonka bit until you mentioned it, but thinking back, it was a little... odd.

    As for the sequel, I was quite excited when it came out, then somewhat disappointed in the tonal shift. I still got heavily into it, though as you said, it didn't quite feel like it knew what it wanted to be. That said (and there are spoilers here), it was my first introduction to Tirek and Scorpan and ultimately got me to watch Rescue at Midnight Castle which...

    Fuck, what am I saying, I hated that thing. <.< Damn you, Bobcat.

    As for Bobcat himself, it's sad to see you go, dude, but I knew it was coming. You were a cool guy, from what little time I got to hang with you. Thanks for giving us something this memorable. :)

  8. For "It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia"
    Okay, early on I thought this started very well. There was a good deal of humor (“apples of +3 deliciousness”, I’m not a DnD person but that’s still hilarious) and to be honest it was interesting enough. I did frown at the Nigerian financial scam gag. Look, I do question the idea of Twilight being an intellectual but she’s not that stupid. But otherwise it was good.

    However, once Soarin showed up, certain factors began to click in my brain and then I groaned because I finally figured out what I was reading and I was right. The story was conventional corn, or is more commonly known, your typical Hollywood romantic comedy. It’s all there, socially awkward girl unsure of her feelings, rich guy who isn’t happy being rich and famous (and who likes girl because she isn’t interested in those parts but instead his personality), the two of them going around the big city and painting it red, supportive girl friend of the girl (although there is a bit of a twist here). Now it never dropped down to the levels of “When Harry met Sally”, but I founded myself limited in my enjoyment due to this factor (they’re not my thing to be honest). I also kind of wish the Willy Wonka parody wasn’t in it. Let’s face it, nothing is going to beat the Grunka Lunkas, and while the song was funny, I wish something else was put in the factory's place. However, I was happy with how it ended and it was better than most romantic comedies (probably because the writing of its self was good).

    I will say unlike Chris, I did not have a problem AJ's accent, but then again I'm a Pogo fan (maybe the only Pogo fan here) and the accents and puns are part of the fun for that comic strip.

    1. For Semper Fidelias, I didn’t finish writing my detailed comments on it and I’m not going to. Chris touched on most of it already. Unlike him, I’d seen the G1 pilot before reading this and so things probably made less sense to me. Frankly, I felt that Hank the Sasquatch was inconsistent as a character (a big part of why he acted as he did in the pilot was not included in Semper Fidelias) and his actions didn’t make sense when put together. And chapter three’s ending just broke it for me. It’s just too convenient (even with set-up). Then again, I’m not a fan of “the fate of the world rests in your hands” type of stories.

      However, I did read “Forever” today, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I think that was the first fanfict I’ve read since March that didn’t raise any questions or complaints in my mind while reading or after that dealt with what was in the work itself. And I have a philosophy to judge people on their best work, not their average. And if “Forever” is your best work, Bob, that’s something to be proud of.

      It’s a shame to see you go Bob but that’s your choice. I always liked you and the gruff war veteran persona that you evocated with comments. May you prosper in all that you do.

    2. Fair enough. I definitely see the flaws in Semper these days.

      And yeah, Forever's probably my best overall pony work, though I think some of that is genre based. With each story, I went with a different genre just to practice with everything, and Forever was... almost cheating, in a sense. It almost seemed TOO easy to write, in retrospect.

      But yeah. Glad you could grudgingly enjoy these somewhat. Now that you've read Forever, you know that I'd set up what I had in my Fillydelphia, and I'd feel like I'd missed an opportunity if I didn't do SOMETHING with the Horseshy factory.