Monday, June 15, 2015

Episode Talk: S5E9, Slice of Life

We'll be doing something a little different, today.  Instead of talking about whatever little things I noticed or favorite/least favorite scenes (let's face it, this episode's been analyzed to death already, and it only aired two days ago), I'm just going to talk about how I felt about it, and what, if anything, there is to take away from it going forward.  My thoughts, below the break.


Like a lot of people, I wasn't sure what to hope for going in.  I mean, finding out more about the background ponies sounds pretty neat... but all indications were that this was going to be a BIG IMPORTANT EPISODE (#100, dontcha know), and the show-writers' track record with BIEs is, to put it charitably, mixed.

On viewing?  I enjoyed it.  I was entertained.  I laughed a bunch, enjoyed some of the references, didn't cringe the whole way through... the show got a positive reaction from me.

But I think it's important to add that it wasn't the kind of positive reaction I usually derive from the show.  For me, the best episodes of FiM provide a wholesome, day-brightening sort of refreshment which helps reaffirm an essential optimism about the world.  Slice of Life, by contrast, offered up a cynical, smugly self-aware dose of winking humor, one in which my entertainment felt deadening rather than affirming.  Watching this episode was not unlike watching [insert your favorite drama-filled reality TV show]; you enjoy it, but even if it's not, strictly speaking, a guilty pleasure, there's an unavoidable sense of cheapening which clings to you as a viewer--as a willing, viewing participant in the proceedings.

The obvious question, then, is why.  Why does this feel so, for lack of a better word, dirty?  I think the answer lies in what the show's writers are telling us with this episode.  And what I heard, loud and clear, was "We don't care about this show."

Not in a malicious way, nor even as a "take that" to those who take the show more seriously.  But I think the very clear message was "we, the writers, feel perfectly comfortable putting our time into in-jokes, writing fandom-jostling entendres, and coming up with referential humor not in addition to, but at the expense of the quality or even coherence of the story we're nominally supposed to be telling."  Because let's face it, the "story" in this episode was nonsensical.  The donkeys are panicking because nothing is ready for their wedding today, enlist backup-Twi to help... and then she disappears and everything resolves without her.  Steven shows up (loved it!), sets up a clear divide between the marriage and the wedding... and that dichotomy is never touched on again, even tangentially.  A changeling shows up at the party, and even just one line of throwaway dialogue could have explained his presence... but no doubt that wouldn't have been as funny as the silent visual gag, so nothing doing.

That changeling felt like a metaphor for the whole episode.  Sure, we can all come up with reasons why there's one changeling child(?) at the wedding--the feature box has had three come through already.  But it only makes sense if you build some headcanon around it; based solely on the show to date, it's incomprehensible, and requires the audience to construct an explanation (/excuse) for its presence.  That's where "we don't care about this show" comes into things; this episode feels to me like an unambiguous statement by the show-writers that making things make sense is not their job--it's a function of the fandom.

There are a lot of shows like that, of course.  Everyone's bringing up The Simpsons, who also once did a "background character episode," and who've thrived for decades on taking themselves as seriously as any given joke demanded.  That hasn't been FiM's MO to date, though; this is a show that's been big on worldbuilding and consistent lore (as consistent as multiple scriptwriters and constant turnover can make it, anyway), and about creating Equestria as a full-blown secondary reality.  Slice of Life sure feels like a repudiation of that kind of storytelling, and a move toward a more Simpsons-esque freeform vehicle for comedy.

I really hope that's not the case, because the uncynical, expansive tone of FiM is what sets it apart from other shows for me.  There are lots of shows on TV that can get me to laugh--but there aren't a lot that can put a smile on my face for an entire day.  FiM can, but this episode didn't.

17 comments:

  1. Thoughts are here and I have to agree with the overall sentiments expressed in this post except...

    "That hasn't been FiM's MO to date, though; this is a show that's been big on worldbuilding and consistent lore (as consistent as multiple scriptwriters and constant turnover can make it, anyway), and about creating Equestria as a full-blown secondary reality."

    Okay, this I do not agree with. World-building has never been this show's strong point, and I've usually found myself groaning at many attempts of doing so (the changelings, the latest griffin episode, amongst others) and... I will not go into any further detail at this moment because it is late and I need to sleep for work. Maybe a future blog post on my end.

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  2. This largely reflects my own thoughts (although you're far more articulate). It was very entertaining, great to see some nods to fandom — especially Lyra and Bon Bon, and I'm not even into lesbian shipping — yet very different from past episodes. We have seen hints of this sort of thing in the past, but this episode just saturated with it. I don't think it's a sign of things to come (at least I hope not). I'm viewing this episode purely as a gift to the fandom, totally separate from everything else. I imagine them saying "Hey guys, we love you. Sorry about the wings and Horse School Musical, so here's something special just for you." Maybe this was even to get all that out of the way and return to form in the future. I will admit that the new writers' credits have me a bit worried, though

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  3. I feel like anyone who attempted to take this episode even slightly seriously would end up being at least a little bit put off. Everything I knew about it, I learned from Chris's previous blog... preamble... thingy, so it's obvious that I didn't know very much. That being said, I was caught off guard muchly, and probably would have felt similarly to how everyone above me says they felt, had the utter ridiculousness of it not made me immediately assume it was simply the creators of the show getting to have fun with the fandom for once.

    "It's the hundredth episode! We should do something special!"

    "How about we use our show making powers to make a bunch of the fan theories people have come up with COME TO LIFE?"

    "That's crazy."

    "You're crazy."

    "Kiss me, you fool!"

    Etc. Etc.

    Point being is I liked it, and I don't feel dirty or disappointed with it in the slightest because I think the show creators were just doing something weird and harmless to show they care. Looking back on it, the only things I think could have made it better would be if Octavia had a full on cockney accent and Lyra ended up also being a secret agent, but from a different faction, and the fact that they'd become best friends was completely coincidental. And more Celestia and Luna interaction, because that was one of my favorite parts.

    Also, since pretty much everything in this episode was fandom jokes (oh the poor tiny children who had no idea what was going on), I'm not surprised Chris's beloved Carrot pony wasn't in it. As far as I know she doesn't have any concrete fan theories related to her. The thing that did surprised me the most was learning that the same person did the voices of both Steven Magnet and Gummy. I never would have guessed!

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  4. On watching this episode for the first time, I had a very similar opinion. However, after watching it a second time, I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more, and for completely different reasons.

    "Because let's face it, the "story" in this episode was nonsensical. The donkeys are panicking because nothing is ready for their wedding today, enlist backup-Twi to help... and then she disappears and everything resolves without her. "

    This is where I think you are missing the point. This episode isn't the story of Cranky and Matilda's wedding, or of the Doctor finding clothes, or of Lyra and Bon Bon's relationship. Instead, it is about how, in the background of some Big Ponyville Thing (a monster attack, in this case), there is a whole world of other ponies (and donkeys) going through their daily lives, even (or specially) when the Mane 6 aren't involved.

    This is, essentially, what fanfiction writers have been working with for ages. Except that the episode makes this explicit, thus bringing people who don't care or never thought about this stuff into the fold. In this, "Slice of Life" isn't about the fandom references, which are largely incidental, but about showing Ponyville as the vibrant town we always imagined it being. As such, having anything resembling a main character would be immensily detrimental to the overall effect.

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  5. I'm surprised that you liked this as much as you did, Chris, but for me, I enjoyed it even more, largely for the reasons the above two commenters gave. It was hilarious, and I love when this show goes full comedy. I think this was the most I laughed at a non-Discord episode since Lesson Zero.

    The only even slightly negative feeling I had towards it was that I felt the Doctor's "great wickering stallions" catchphrase became overused by the end, but that's about the most minor of minor things for me to pick on.

    I loved this episode, and I feel absolutely great about that.

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  6. I loved it -- as a one-off. If the show did this even semi-regularly, that would probably be the point at which I'd get up and walk away. It was (as M. A. Larson explicitly acknowledged at some length*) a deliberate shout-out to the fandom, and it worked very well as that. I do slightly fret about what impact it may have on actual little kids (since we older fans are but guests in their house) but, again, as a one-off it's probably fine.

    I wasn't a fan of the Doctor's catchphrase either, I'm still undecided about Gummy and I felt Steven Magnet's scene was overlong and a little forced. I also wonder whether this episode will prove to work only as a moment in time and will date quite badly. Never mind. I had a good time.

    Also, there's a refreshing lack of fandom drama over "Muffins". Even when Larson (apparently) revealed that he'd originally referred to her as "Derpy" in the script, but Hasbro told him to change it even there. She'll always be Derpy to me, I suspect, but Muffins is a cute enough name.

    * On Twitter, so "some length" was about 500 characters.

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  7. My thoughts are pretty similar to Soge's. I did quite enjoy all the fandom references, but I also enjoyed the story that the vast majority of bronies apparently missed. Though I will concede that perhaps it coulda been handled better.

    The changeling and everyone else at that wedding were implied by the Mayor to be friends that Cranky befriended on his journey across Equestria to find Matilda. At least that the implication I heard. Cranky did say in his previous episode, "I made plently of friends. I don't need anymore!"

    That whole marriage vs. wedding thing could've been touched on by even just one line from Matilda afterwards and everything woulda been hunky dory. Probably. But that's something I find I can easily forgive.

    Backup-Twi could definitely have had at least one more scene. Showing her getting Vinyl, Octavia Lyra, and Bon Bon to reschedule, would be good. I'm even willing to bet such a scene was planned but got cut for time or something. Still, I also find that easy to forgive because it was implied they did at least something. Eh, perhaps I'm too forgiving.

    I also heard some people bashing Doctor Whooves saying there was just no point to him other than making blatant Dr. Who references. I, having no familiarity with Dr. Who, enjoyed his antics greatly.

    I'm feeling very certain that we're not going to see anything like this episode ever again from FiM. Which is good, but I'm also very glad it exists. One episode to now and forever fill the absurdity and pandering quota. People who don't like it can allow it to fade into obscurity in their minds. Those that do can always look back on it with a big smile.

    It can also be said the entire episode was simple leading up to ass kissing.

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    1. Aaaahahaha! That pun. That's a good one. It never even occurred to me!

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  8. I think the biggest criticism I can make is not that the characters come out of nowhere with no personality, but that their presentation was very unbalanced. The Doctor and Octavia got way too huge a chunk of screen time, whereas Amethyst Star, the Flower Trio, and Lotus got barely a few seconds. It felt way too arbitrary.

    "a wholesome, day-brightening sort of refreshment which helps reaffirm an essential optimism"

    I got that from the episode when the Mayor made her speech at the end. That was the moment for me when the episode snapped into focus and I got a warm glow from it, both from the hidden reality subtext and the literal interpretation of the words. It was cute and great to see the "marginal" elements of the show get their due.

    "But it [the changeling] only makes sense if you build some headcanon around it;"

    I think you're missing the point. The point of the sight gag was not that it required an insider's knowledge of the fandom's obsession with changelings, but that it was random and funny BASED on it being incomprehensible. It's funny because it's a villainous species behaving in a completely non-villainous way, yet still getting treated by the foals as if it weren't. It's equivalent in absurd humour would be the devil being portrayed as a bumbling idiot, like the Robot Devil in Futurama.

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    1. "Its equivalent", not "It's equivalent".

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  9. I agree with pretty much all the points that SeeVee, Soge, DannyJ, and DeftFunk made.

    I will add that it's only marginally crazier than episodes like Lesson Zero and It's About Time, which are generally agreed by the fandom to be amazing episodes.

    Also, I feel like it's not cynical at all. It's a love letter to the fandom on a meta-level, and even taken at face value it has a message about how every individual is important in their own story.

    I will concede that you do have a point about the incomprehensibility thing, but I liked this episode for what it was, both literally (a series of vignettes on the crazy life of background characters) and at a meta-level (a beautiful love letter to the fandom).

    (Of course, as I'm proofreading this, I'm noticing that I'm really not debating the points you made at all, but I'll post it anyway despite those flaws. And of course, you are totally entitled to your own opinion.)

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  10. Weird: I agree with the criticism in this blog post, but STILL make it my favorite episode, simply because I had the most fun with it! I guess this is mostly for two reasons:

    1. The meme characters work extremely well.

    I especially noticed that with Cadence and Shining Armor among the crowd. It's just a princess and her prince in shining armor -- which became his name. Compared to fanon Derpy&Doctor, Vinyl&Tavi, or Lyra&Bon-Bon pairings, can they even compete?

    Memes have evolved and passed the test of time. That shows; I love these characters. (Too bad though they didn't use the fan idea where Bon-Bon is a changeling. Would've worked even greater for "My name isn't Bon-Bon".)

    2. Neither worldbuilding not the example set for children are very good in "normal" episodes.

    There simply isn't much to break. Take the changeling scene: with it, the princesses aren't racist freaks who purged every single one of them from their lands. If this needs an explanation, then well, I prefer my headcanon where they're just half nazis.

    From this angle, compare the episode to the S3 and S4 finale. One marches the master race before a homogeneous pony crowd that treats them as gods, the other beats a prisoner who had to live on a rock without sunlight back into his prison. The method? Nothing but brute force. Superior firepower from more friends.

    "Slice of Life", on the other hand, had everyone and -thing up to a queer sea monster working and partying together. I find that much more appropriate in a children's show.

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  11. Would it make you feel better if I told you this was just a one-off love letter? An that LArson had to be convinced to writing the whole thing? Because thats all this is, is just a simple one off story. Kind of like if you made a whole episode dedicated to Dial M for Monkey (Wich would've made Dexter's Lab better) or an episode dedicated to the Scottsman from Jack

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  12. I enjoyed the episode. Not surprising, since I'm writing a story featuring background ponies and OCs while the events of Seasons 1 and 2 are happening. I like how life goes on even while the stars of the show are occupied.

    I don't think we have to worry about MLP:FIM moving in the direction of The Simpsons. I think episodes other than this one will always focus on at least one of the main cast.

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  13. You explained pretty well why I disliked this episode: it just didn't feel like an episode of MLP.

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  14. Heh, I disagree pretty much completely with everything you said. It's one of the very few times that I felt like the creators loved the show, and it felt like the *most* MLP-like episode that there has ever been, MLP distilled down to its utmost essence, more than I can remember any other single episode doing -- friendship, dangers that aren't ever really intimidating nor significantly disrupt the goodness that is Equestria, diverse ponies being eccentric and unique, wackiness all around, and one of my favorite sayings in the end.

    In short I loved the episode. I consider it one of the all-time greatest episodes of MLP.

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