-I wasn't at all impressed with the way the CMC got bemarked last season, and it's fair to say I didn't have very high expectations here. Unfortunately, this episode was not one that I particularly enjoyed, for a variety of reasons.
-To start, the big one: the way this episode treats cutie marks. Now, I'm not going to call it show-ruining by any stretch, if only because the show writers have decisively shown over the past few seasons that they're willing to interpret those things in whatever way suits the need of their particular episode without regard for what any other writers are doing. But still, it sticks in my craw that the CMC getting cutie marks in "helping people with their cutie marks" means that their attitudes about being butt-bedecked have taken an instant 180 to "you can't rush these things, relax" (alternately, they're lying to the Cake twins, but that doesn't seem like they're speed); that smacks really hard of "cutie marks define who you are," which... I mean, Rarity's entire shtick is that that isn't the case, right? And regardless, the idea that this obvious puberty stand in determines your role in society, and alters your perceptions and beliefs to fit that role, is creepy as all get-out. This impression is only reinforced by the CMC deciding in the first half of the episode that their role is to be Cutie Mark Enforcers, patrolling the streets to ensure that everyone is doing exactly what they're designated to perform. Actually, maybe it's a good thing Rarity wasn't in this episode...
-Applebloom's song was also a clean miss to me. The lyrics were inoffensive enough, and the tune was pretty standard pop-country, but the two didn't mesh well, with the syllable counts often seriously out of sync with the rhythms and odd syllables getting the vocal stresses. I don't pretend to know how this song was put together, but it sure sounded like what happens when you try to throw a few (word) verses onto a pre-existing tune, rather than modifying one or both to match the other.
Carrot Top and her friends don't mind the song--they're so pumped to go rafting that nothing can bring them down. See, who says Carrot doesn't ever do anything exciting? Also, "Carrot Top wearing a life vest" is pushing hard for a top-three placement on the "cutest ponies" list.
At the end of the whitewater run, Noteworthy turned to Carrot Top. "Weren't there five of us at the start of this trip?" he asked. Carrot Top looked behind her and, seeing that Apple Bloom was missing, groaned. "Not again," she muttered.
-To back up a little bit to Sweetie trying to teach the other two to sing with her: what was up with the "sheet music" they showed? Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a thing I disliked about the episode, but it did make me intensely curious, because it's a correctly constructed grand staff with a bunch of well-rendered notes on it... but not only is it not music, it's full of glaring, music-101 errors (e.g. the base clef is in some made-up key where E and G(!) are flatted). When non-musicians just scribble some music-y looking stuff on the page, I get it. When they copy in a piece of public domain sheet music, I get that too. But this? I'd be really interested to hear who created this page, what they know about notation, and just generally how that page came to be.
-Bulk Biceps (for some reason, I still like "Roid Rage" better for his name, even if it's 100% tonally inappropriate for FiM) continues to be a funny dude. I was hoping that The CMC's solution would be for him to start lifting weight with his massive, pony-grasping pecs, though--would've been a nice call-back to his masseuse career.
-Just an aside to everyone joking about Tree Hugger being a nude model: knock it off! For goodness sake, people, this is a kids show! Okay, okay, seriously though: she wasn't modeling nude. She was still wearing her headscarf; among ponies, that's the very definition of modesty!
-I was initially prepared to let the dance instructor's "we've got a performance tonight, think you can get ready in time?" bit go as a "this is one of those 'participation' groups" thing, but if you're going to refuse to let her onstage because she's incompetent (and given that the other ponies appear to be competent)... was she really asking AB if she could learn an unfamiliar routine in a couple of hours, starting from "no dance training whatsoever?"
Derpy and Carrot Top are actually attending together. The reason they're separated is because Carrot wants to be front and center, while Derpy has an unfortunate tendency to spread her wings in delight every time she sees a move she enjoys. Through hard experience, she's learned that this means it's better for her to sit in back, with nopony to either side of her, lest she smack someone in the jaw.
Oh, and why was Carrot Top coming to this dance recital, you ask?
To see her cousin Beta, of course! Beta's no foal--as you can see, she's a Carrot-teen. Still, she and her partner agreed to perform an opening set for the dance school, being graduates of the program themselves. A few weeks ago she broke her snout when her partner dropped her on her face during a lift, but not even that could discourage her from her love of dance, and Carrot always makes time to come and support her.
Carrot Top can also be just a little bit hypercritical of everypony's dancing except Beta's. Tender Taps is right to be scared; you can run, but you can't escape Carrot Top's judging eyes, silently cataloging your every misstep and flaw as she mentally lists the ways in which her cousin is the superior performer.
...Okay, those maybe aren't "judging eyes" so much as "Oh my goodness, I think Apple Bloom just broke her neck" eyes. Still not a look you want to be on the receiving end of.
Derpy, meanwhile, has vanished, along with the other two mares in the back rows. All three showed up a short ways outside of of town two days later, with no memory of how they got there or what they were doing, save for some non-euclidean scraps of fabric scattered about them. Nopony could figure out what they were or how they had been created, other than to agree that they were definitely not crocheted.
-Also, just to mention this somewhere, it's getting really, really obvious that the CMCs VAs aren't little kids anymore. This is why I generally don't like casting actual children as VAs for ongoing series; even if they're perfect for the job, they tend to change faster than their characters do, vocals-wise. That was most obvious with Sweetie Belle in this episode, but let's face it: none of the three sound all that much like they used to.
-Did anyone else take a good look at Tender's cutie mark, at the end? Because given how this episode was all about the "you should (must?) spend your life doing exactly what your cutie mark says, no ifs, ands, or buts," school of thought, I thought it was interesting to see exactly what his was. Specifically, it was a spotlight, and a top hat... a top hat which was very noticeably not in the spotlight. Given that he was so afraid of performing, that would seem to suggest that (his single performance before a friendly crowd (and Carrot Top) notwithstanding), his destiny is to stay out of the spotlight. Maybe as an instructor? Maybe his special talent is being a background cast member? Or perhaps the thing he's best at is never quite being good enough to make it under the bright lights. Which would be super depressing, so I'm going to go ahead and hope it's one of the first two.
-All in all, I didn't particularly enjoy the things this episode was actually about, but it had a lot of little flourishes that made it watchable. If an episode isn't going to be to my tastes, I guess that's not the worst thing for it to be.