Something rare is happening on a formerly unwatched children's basic cable channel: the friendship between art and commerce is actually turning out a little bit of magic.
The commerce first, though, because, well, we're talking about the entertainment industry here, aren't we?
Early in 2008, the folks at Discovery Communications asked Nielsen Media Research to please stop listing the Discovery Kids channel in their weekly TV ratings due to the abysmal numbers Discovery Kids was pulling in. At the same time, the toy company Hasbro was looking for a media partner so they could get back into the animation business. And faster than you can say "corporate synergy," the two conglomerates reached a deal that saw new cartoons based on Hasbro toys premiering on the renamed Hub channel in October 2010. Ratings increased sixfold that first week and have been slowly climbing ever since, and the online buzz started almost immediately about the new My Little Pony show, subtitled Friendship Is Magic.
Yes, you read that right. My Little Pony.
Y'see, Margaret Loesch, the head of programming at the Hub, had been in charge of Hasbro's TV shows back in the mid-1980s before going on to set up the first Fox Kids lineup, a peculiar and diverse selection of animated fare that included things like Eek the Cat, The Tick, Zazoo U, and X-Men. A veteran, in other words, who well realized the challenge a startup cable channel would face in today's fragmented entertainment atmosphere.
So for the new My Little Pony series, she did something that, in a perfect world, executives would do all the time: she went looking for someone who'd done interesting work of a similar nature in the past. This led her to Lauren Faust, a writer and showrunner whose name first came to my attention for her work on The Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, two fine shows from the Cartoon Network.
Faust, it turned out, had played with My Little Pony toys as a youth, and her personal art site is even named for the pegasus character Sandy Duncan gave voice to in the original half-hour My Little Pony special from 1984. Her very definite ideas about how to approach a new Pony series meshed well with Loesch's, and this meeting of the corporate desire to make money and the artistic desire to produce some quality animated cartoons has resulted in a show that hits me right between the eyes in a way nothing on TV has in quite a few years.
But then I'm a sucker for "cute." The vast majority of my creative output both before and after I began selling my stories has featured talking animals of one sort or another, and that's largely what I turn to when I'm looking to be entertained. Being forty-six years old, however, I find myself looking for cuteness with a brain, cuteness with a heart, cuteness with a soul, and over the years, I've written a fair number of reviews and articles—even one on this very web site—about that sort of cuteness. I call it the New Cute.
Let me pull from that earlier piece my attempt to summarize the difference between the two types of cute: "The New Cute is all about taking cute to new and unexpected places, places that would be too confusing or too obscure or too thought-provoking for the Old Cute, while still and always remaining cute." And let me also note that one of the examples of the Old Cute that I give there is, in fact, My Little Pony.
The original Pony series epitomizes the Old Cute with its colorful but largely undifferentiated cast of characters living in a fairly generic fantasy setting regularly confronted by some larger than life menace that wishes to destroy or enslave them for reasons that are often unclear. The Good Guys, who are good because they laugh and dance and sing, inevitably defeat the Bad Guys, who are bad mostly because they don't do any of the above, and this defeat usually comes not through any particular strength or cleverness on the part of our Good Guys but rather through a combination of dumb luck and some small displays of intestinal fortitude.
Of course, that little plot outline makes me think of quite a large swath of fantasy and SF. Change a word here and there, and haven't you got the skeletal structure of everything from Lord of the Rings and Dune to Star Wars and The Psalms of Isaak?
I'd say so, except, of course, for the depth a given author adds to the basic story. It's the execution, after all, that marks the difference between a classic novel and one destined to be a dust-gatherer, and this dictum applies to everything from Greek epic poetry to the latest PlayStation extravaganza. Specifically applied to the two varieties of cuteness under discussion here, the Old Cute isn't interested in adding more than cursory depth to the standard plot while the New Cute doesn't just dig deeper; it actively monkeys about, taking detours that'll make the project turn from a cute little talking animal story suitable for the elementary school crowd into something all ages can enjoy.
Which is exactly what Faust and her crew—including writers like her former Powerpuff Girls comrade Amy Keating Rogers and story editor Rob Renzetti, creator of the Nickelodeon series My Life as a Teenage Robot—are doing with My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Now, don't get me wrong: it's still a show meant to instill a desire for little plastic toys in girls of a certain demographic. But Faust has taken the large amount of leeway Loesch and the other folks holding the purse strings have given her, and the effort she and her staff of writers, animators, designers, and composers have put into the characters, the setting and the execution of the show goes above and beyond what I certainly was expecting.
Let me talk a bit about the first two episodes—the whole series can be purchased through iTunes but is also readily available on YouTube because, well, Hasbro is a toy company; they don't seem to care where folks watch the cartoons as long as the watchers then go on to buy the merchandise. These first two episodes form a single introductory story, and they're also as close as the series has come to employing the traditional Old Cute villain-who's-gonna-destroy-the-world. In fact, the villain's shtick here is taken directly from that first Pony TV special of more than a quarter century ago: she wants to plunge the world into everlasting night.
But instead of going with some random and anonymous Bad Guy as that first show did, Faust gives us the land of Equestria and the two immortal winged unicorn sisters who rule it: Celestia, in charge of raising the sun every morning, and Luna, who brings out the moon at night. Luna, however, notices that, while the mortal ponies love to be out and about in Celestia's day, no matter how much time and effort she puts into her nights, the ponies just sleep through them. Festering with jealousy, she transforms one night into Nightmare Moon and refuses to give way to the dawn. Celestia reluctantly summons the Elements of Harmony, "the most powerful magic known to Ponydom," defeats her sister, banishes her to the moon, and has to start running the whole pony cosmos by herself.
All that, and we haven't even come to the first episode's opening titles yet!
It turns out this all happened a thousand years ago, but Celestia's current star pupil, the unicorn Twilight Sparkle, has discovered that Nightmare Moon may very well be on the verge of breaking free from her imprisonment. And at the end of that two-part story, we get one more wrinkle when Twilight Sparkle and the friends she's made during her adventure use the Elements of Harmony to change Nightmare Moon back into Luna and return her, now fully repentant, to her loving and forgiving sister.
Sibling rivalry, cosmic warfare, magic, myth, legend, and redemption: this is what I wanna see in a program devoted to multi-colored talking horses! And even better from my point of view is the way the rest of the series so far has focused on the question I first saw Steve Gerber explore in issue #24 of the original Howard the Duck comic book series: what do you do the day after you save the universe? Rather than the standard Old Cute Earth-shattering menace of the week, the creators have given us largely character-driven, slice-of-life stories about Twilight and her five new friends trying to figure out how they fit into each other's lives and life in general.
But the very domesticity of the plots illustrates again how important execution is. The episode "Stare Master," for instance, has a plot as old as mass entertainment itself: Fluttershy, the most unassuming of our main characters, ends up babysitting a trio of rambunctious little fillies. But the fillies here aren't the stereotypical brats this plot usually calls for; in fact, they're pursuing a worthwhile agenda, trying to discover their special talents so they can develop their "cutie marks," the little sigils that appear on the flanks of all ponies once they reach a certain age. That pursuit, however, leads them into the path of a cockatrice, and it's the quiet, animal-loving Fluttershy who has the perfect set of skills to save the day.
That careful attention to character above all else is what places the show firmly among the cutest of the New Cute. Depth of character, after all, is a two-way street: The more layers the writers give their characters, the less perfect they're going to be, the more flawed, and the more interesting. And Faust and her staff are absolutely fearless when it comes to showing the less-attractive aspects of these characters: Rainbow Dash, the daredevil pegasus who hides a crippling fear of failure; Applejack, the plainspoken farm pony with a mile-wide stubborn streak; Rarity, the big-hearted fashion designer unicorn who gives in to her vanity now and again; Pinkie Pie, the happy-go-lucky party pony who can't get the others to listen to her when she actually has something important to say.
Rarity, by the way, is at the center of what remains for me the central New Cute moment of the series. In the episode "Suited for Success," she sings a little song while designing and sewing dresses for the show's other main characters. But what could've been a very Old Cute moment is transformed by episode writer Charlotte Fullerton and series composer Daniel Ingram into a dead-on and loving pastiche of "Putting it Together" from Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's show about the joys and difficulties of the creative process.
So instead of a happy little ballad about making dresses for your friends, we get the other ponies picking Rarity's designs apart, moving her further and further from her original vision while she sings, her eye starting to twitch, "Stitch by stitch, stitching it together/Deadline looms; don't you know the client's always right?/Even if my fabric choice was perfect/Gotta get them all done by tonight. . . ."
This is the essence of the New Cute: take something as easily dismissible as My Little Pony, add character, a bit of slyness, and a fair dollop of mythic resonance while not losing one iota of the cuteness, and turn out something that's oddly compelling and pretty damn entertaining to boot. It's a children's show, yes, but one made by adults who won't talk down to their audience and who don't think that "all ages" means "underlying irony." Telling stories about characters with humor and heart shouldn't be such a remarkable thing, but I find it very rarely. And with cute talking animals? Sign me up!
Michael H. Payne's short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress series, and the Writers of the Future anthology; his novel The Blood Jaguar, originally published by Tor Books, will be reprinted in an illustrated edition next year by Sofawolf Press. He's a former reviewer for Tangent Online and Comixtalk.com, coordinates the SFWA's Circulating Book Plan, and spends a great deal of time messing about with his two webcomics, Daily Grind and Terebinth. Try hyniof.livejournal.com to see how it all comes out.
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