Time for part 2! Now I'll poke at some more specific aspects of the two seasons.
In my mid-season review, I nitpicked a bit about the ordering of the episodes and the respective focus each pony gets. And for the most part, I don't think a whole lot has changed since then. I still think that Season 2 needed a few more ensemble episodes, although I think it did start to pick up in the second half, what with episodes like "The Last Roundup" and "MMMystery on the Friendship Express". It's not a huge deal, though. The season spread doesn't really influence the quality of the individual episodes. However, I do think it's interesting to note that the way the episodes are organized does seem to have something of an effect on how the fans perceive certain characters.
A good example of this is the way Rainbow Dash ended up getting perceived over the course of the season. (I realize that this probably might not be all that visible to a lot of people, but I noticed it, so here we go.) Like I noted in the mid-season review, RD's public perception kinda took a bit of a hit. In "May the Best Pet Win", she wasn't exactly on her best behavior (exactly how jerkish or non-jerkish she is is a bit of a debate, but I think we can agree that she isn't 100% in the clear), and "Mysterious Mare Do Well" pretty clearly shows her with just about the worst attitude she'd had in the show. And these two episodes played consecutively. Needless to say, I think people would have complained less about RD being a jerk if "Hurricane Fluttershy" had aired before one or both of these episodes and given more focus on the good side of her character. I can't complain too much about how she was treated in those episodes individually (well, I can complain about MMDW, because I think it wasn't well written), but I do think that overall it was a bit detrimental to the overall season to have those two episodes next to each other because they really color one's perception of the character. They should have been spread out a bit more across the season, or at least broken up with an episode that didn't reflect so negatively on RD's character.
Overall, this season seems to clump certain character episodes together. The first half of the season is largely focused on Twilight, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash, (especially the latter two) and even in regard to those characters, their episodes seem to be clumped together. Twilight factors very heavily into the first four episodes of Season 2, Rarity features pretty heavily in "Sisterhooves Social", "Sweet and Elite", and "Secret of My Excess", and as noted, Rainbow Dash's episodes are consecutive. They are broken up a bit by episodes about the CMC or an ensemble episode, but the first half of the season is almost entirely dominated by those three ponies. The only episode that really focuses on a character other than those three is "Baby Cakes", which in the broadcast order is episode 13, at the very end of the first half of the season. Yes, the other characters get moments within episodes (like AJ in "Sisterhooves Social"), but for the most part, they don't get any focus episodes and Twilight, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash get most of the limelight.
Naturally, the second half of the season flips it and focuses on Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Applejack. Similarly to the first half, Applejack's episodes come one after another. Unlike the first half, the second half shakes things up. Pinkie's three focus episodes are spread across the season, and Fluttershy's have a few buffer episodes between them. In addition, Twilight and Rainbow Dash both get additional focus episodes; AJ, Pinkie, and Fluttershy don't quite monopolize the second half the way that Rarity, Twilight, and RD did the first half. Obviously, it's more or less up to the individual how much this influences the season as a whole. If you have all the episodes and can watch them whenever you want, it isn't that big of a deal, but I do think that in the initial live run, the broadcast order could have been a little better, with a more even focus across the board rather than clumping them. Now let's move on to a more specific case.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders
The CMC are probably the most polarizing recurring characters on the show; some people tend to view them as recurring characters on par with the mane 6 (+ Spike), others view them as scene stealers who get a lot more episodes than they really deserve. And there's a whole spectrum of views in between. I tend to land somewhere in the middle; I don't dislike the CMC, but I do think that the writers could have done a lot more with the episodes that they got, and I don't think that their characterization quite stacks up to that of the primary cast. But let's start with the good parts.
I do think that the CMC have vastly improved between seasons 1 and 2. I attribute this improvement to one primary change: they're no longer solely motivated by their desire for cutie marks. The first season made the misstep of making that their reason for doing just about anything, and it made them come across as very one-note. It also makes them look unfortunately dense, as pretty much each of their episodes features them totally not getting the point. I know the whole "crusading" thing is likely just an excuse for them to mess around, but to me it just comes across as obsession, and it gives the episodes a bit of sameyness. Out of all the CMC episodes, the one that I think worked best is "The Stare Master", and that's largely because Fluttershy's involvement in the plot gave the episode substance beyond "The crusaders go crusading and don't quite get it."
The second season goes a long way towards fixing this, mainly by giving us episodes like "Family Appreciation Day" and "Hearts and Hooves Day" that actually give them motivations beyond cutie marks. It makes the characters more fleshed out when they have a variety of reasons for what they do and shows what they're like in a non-crusading context. This extends even to the non CMC centric episodes; Sisterhooves Social is an especially good example because it gives both Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom a lot of development by showing their interactions with their families. Scootaloo kinda gets shafted, but it's still a step in the right direction for the other two.
However, the thing that keeps them from getting bumped up to main cast status is that while they work pretty well in conjunction with established characters, they're still not self sufficient when they're only interacting with each other. They don't have well-defined roles within the group. Scootaloo is kinda identified as the most tomboyish crusader, and Sweetie is a bit more girly than the others, but they're still largely interchangeable as far as roles go. Sure you couldn't switch them in cases where familial relationships are important to the plot, but I get the feeling that if you put them all in similar situations, they'd all react similarly.
To put it another way, I feel like in a lot of their conversations, you could switch around who was saying what lines, and the scene would still work more or less the same way. Think of the cold open of Ponyville Confidential; if you swapped out Apple Bloom for Sweetie Belle or Scootaloo and had the other two mess around with the newspaper, the scene would work and everypony would be in character. In the mane cast, the characters are well defined enough that you can't swap them around like that; there are very few points where you could switch out say, Rainbow Dash and Twilight, or Applejack and Fluttershy, or Pinkie and Rarity. They all have such well-defined voices that their lines usually couldn't be given to anyone else.
A secondary problem that this causes is that I think the CMC are on the same page too much of the time; there isn't enough conflict within the group. Whenever one of them pitches an idea, it's almost always met by unanimous approval. Given that the show as a whole tends to run on social conflict, it's a bit odd that they almost never get mad at each other in any meaningful fashion. Sure, they poke fun , but it's never very substantial. All of the conflicts they're involved in tend to be of the "CMC vs. some outside force" variety. While the CMC have definitely taken a step up from the first season, I still think they need some fleshing out before they'll be at the same level as the primary cast.
Let's face it, pretty much all the supporting characters are pretty popular, so I'd be a bit remiss in not mentioning how S2's one-shot characters compare to S1's. Note: I'm only including characters who appeared in only one episode, and who were personality driven. Zecora isn't there because she's a recurring character, the dragon from Dragonshy isn't because his personality didn't really influence the plot much. I'm also not including the villains because they get their own section. Let's just run a quick refresher:
- Hoity Toity
- Diamond Dogs
- Photo Finish
- The buffalo, Braeburn
- Prince Blueblood
- Luna (I'm not counting NMM, and her later appearances are only cameos)
- Tank (he gets in because his tenacity is an important plot element)
- The Cake Twins
- Flim and Flam
- Cranky Doodle Donkey
- Iron Will
- Teenage Dragons
- Mulia, Gustave, and Joe
- Cadence and Shining Armor
I could probably spin an entire essay off of comparing the characters' individual merits, but I don't have the time for that, and I doubt anybody wants me to anyway. It's especially true given that these characters often tend to get extreme reactions; as popular as Trixie is, there are a good number of fans who dislike her with equal intensity. So trying to figure quality by comparing Trixie to Iron Will isn't going to help at all. So all I'm really going to say about this is that I think the one-shot characters in the two seasons are pretty much equal in terms of quality. Both seasons have a good variety in terms of what types of characters they introduce; on the whole they're memorable and they don't ever come across as rehashes. Each one of them is more or less unique, and they all function differently in their respective episodes. How much one likes each of them boils down to personal preference; on a technical level, there aren't really any appreciable differences.
Okay, here's where we start getting into a bit of contrast. It's hard to deny that the two-parter episodes are all some of the most memorable because they do something different from all the other episodes. The villains ultimately drive the plot, so it pays to delve into them a bit more.
Nightmare Moon is something of a starter villain; the general concept is probably the "safest" of the villainous set. She's the type of villain you'd expect to find in a show like this. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. She has ample motivation for her actions, there's a good explanation for her power, her character design is suitably cool, and she has an appropriate personality for the role (she's a glorious ham, and the way she snarks at Twilight's charge is hilarious). However, she does suffer from one rather crippling flaw: she isn't nearly as threatening as she could be.
This isn't to say that she isn't threatening; her initial appearance sees her kidnap Celestia and take out a bunch of guards. The problem is that after that point, pretty much all of her machinations go downhill and the mane cast is able to get around her obstacles really easily. Yes, it's useful as a mechanism to reveal each of the cast's Elements, but it comes at the expense of her competence. Some of her obstacles are legit: enraging a manticore and collapsing a cliff are pretty effective deterrents.
The problem is that despite being capable of things like that, she still relegates herself to things like snipping a sea serpent's mustache off, making trees look scary, or pretending to start up an aerial stunt team. Sure, some of those things kinda work, but the show establishes right off the bat that she could just zap anypony who opposes her, so it's weird to see her basically waste her time messing with them when she could just kick their butts in short order. She does have a good moment at the end of the episode where she seemingly smashes the EOH in front of Twilight, but other than that, the cast quite easily evades everything she throws at them. It diminishes the overall threat when most of her attacks fail.
Going purely by which villain makes the fullest use of the show's depth of characterization, Discord is by far the most effective. He's also the first villain in the series who actually comes across as a serious threat. Unlike Nightmare Moon, he's more than a match for the protagonists and really makes them work for their victories. The most impressive aspect of the character is by far how he makes use of the cast's personality problems to mess them up; it shows that he's a threat not only because of his raw power, but because of his intelligence; he's really good at reading people, ferreting out their weaknesses and using them to his own advantage. He basically spends the majority of his screentime systematically picking apart the mane six, and he comes across as all the scarier because of it. It also helps that unlike Nightmare Moon, he gets enough screentime to develop a distinct personality. Nightmare Moon is a fairly archetypical villain, while Discord has far more flair and brings his own specific brand of insanity to the proceedings. He's intensely memorable and overall allows the show to really make the most of everything that it has.
That isn't to say that Discord isn't without his flaws. The most glaring one is probably that, to put it simply, he kinda goes out like a punk. Yes, it was inevitable that they'd bust out the elements, but he just sort of sits there and lets the mane six take a shot at him. It would have worked better if they had built up his confidence or arrogance a bit to explain it; he displays so much savviness in the first half by getting the elements away from the cast that it just seems weird to see him act like that.
This issue actually stems from a more subtle problem with the character: he's too powerful. While it's obviously vital for a villain to be a threat, I think Discord overdid it a little. The main reason that it becomes a problem is that it basically necessitates the cast to resort to the Friendship Cannon to take him out because he's too ridiculously overpowered for them to take him out by any other means. He's so absurdly powerful that the only way for the cast to take him out is to toss him the Idiot Ball.
I can buy that the Elements are his only weakness, but his introduction shows him basically neutralizing that part of the threat. The minute he hid the elements, it basically became impossible for the cast to defeat him unless he basically hands them the ability to take him out. Yes, it's within his character for him to toy with his opponents (and the episodes make the most of it), but at the same time it neutralizes a bit of his coolness that he only loses because he was dumb enough to fork the elements over to the ponies, especially when the entire first episode shows that he's obviously smarter than that. It would have been a lot more interesting for him to continue holding onto the elements, only for the cast to manifest them anyway because they aren't physical objects (at least they weren't in the series premier). It would have been a cool way for them to get the drop on him, because it's the one thing that he might not actually know.
But still, overall Discord is a very strong villain and he's utilized really well, so I can't complain about him too much. His episodes have some of the greatest characterization in the series, and there's a remarkable degree of subtlety for a kids' show.
Chrysalis is a pretty good balance between NMM and Discord. She's strong enough to be a threat and has enough screentime to build up a decent characterization, but she isn't so powerful that it needs to feel like the writers need to resort to a trick to take her out (not that her eventual defeat isn't an issue, but more on that later). She also has a freaking awesome character design, and looking at the character as a whole is simply a different type of villain from Discord or Nightmare Moon; she's a much more down-to-earth type of villain rather than some sort of legendary force. Both NMM and Discord were unique, once-in-a-lifetime type deals. Chrysalis is simply a foreign power who declares war on Celestia. Heck her design even shows her as a sort of evil alicorn, and not in the same "corrupted by evil magic" way that Luna is.
The other great thing about the character is that due to the fact that she isn't as stupidly overpowered as Discord she actually has to use her brain to be a real threat. And she manages; rather than just brute-forcing all obstacles out of the way, she's meticulously planned out a scenario where she has the advantage and then manipulated everypony around her to make it happen. She's almost more insidious than Discord because she's so methodical. Discord manipulated, but that because it amused him and when it didn't work he could just brainwash his target. Chrysalis has to manipulate because she's not powerful enough to just charge through; the manipulation is the whole reason that she's a threat. She even gets to one-up Discord in the raw power standings by being the only character to defeat Celestia on-screen.
Of course, she's not entirely in the clear either. The main problem that's specific to her character is that because she spends so much time "in character" as fake Cadance, we don't get to see much of her actual personality. It's a double-edged sword; on one hand, it gives the first half of the finale a level of suspense that no other episode has; you know something is weird with Cadance, but you don't know what. The lack of information about Chrysalis' true nature keeps the tension high. On the other hand, it means that she doesn't have as much time to establish her own personality.
The second problem is that while the show avoids making her so powerful that it has to pull something out of it's behind to resolve the plot, it inexplicably decides to do that anyway. There are a lot of ways that Chrysalis' discussion to let Cadance and Shining Armor into the same room could have been rationalized, and the show doesn't even try, so she ends up looking like she left a rather enormous hole in her plan. She has to have a lot of cleverness to have pulled her plan off, but as soon as she drops the disguise she also seems to lose some IQ points, which is weird because it would have been pretty easy to patch up those issues.
But the main issue is that she's only defeated by Cadance and Shining Armor's Love Power. And it isn't specific to this episode. If anything, it only signals a trend. Now, I realize that it's consistent with the setting; I even defended that aspect of it in my review of these episodes. I think it's consistent with the setting that the power of love could do something like that, and I'm kinda impressed that they didn't go with the obvious and have the Elements save the day. The problem is that it shows things falling into a pattern, because thus far every single true threat has been taken out in similar fashion: a metaphysical representation of friendship creates a power boost that takes out the bad guy.
This is totally consistent with the show's themes (I mean, it's right in the title), but at the same time I feel like it's showing a lack of creativity in how the dramatic episodes get resolved. I mean let's take a quick rundown of all the legit villains that the show has introduced:
- Nightmare Moon: Zapped by Elements of Harmony
- Discord: Zapped by Elements of Harmony
- Windigos: Immolated by the Fires of Friendship
- Chrysalis: Blasted off Team Rocket style by the Power of Love
Taken individually, these are fine, but dangit I want to see a villain that's defeated by means other than "virtuous magic appears and defeats them". I get that it might run counter to the show's primary theme to just have Big Mac kick the villain into submission, but surely a crew capable of making My Little Pony into an awesome show can think of an alternate way to take out the villains without resorting to the cast using the Friendship Cannon. Having them use good old teamwork or something. It's starting to get anticlimactic. The episodes have done a decent job of shaking up that formula a bit (Discord hiding the elements, Chrysalis successfully keeping the cast away from the elements), but the core is the same: somepony summons up a manifestation of an abstract concept and the villain gets obliterated no matter how close they were to victory otherwise. If they want to keep things from getting boring, they need to either subvert it or just abandon it completely.
That said, I can't really say that it detracts from the episodes any. Given that the legit villain episodes only comprise six episodes total (4 if you don't count the episodes where Nightmare Moon and Chrysalis aren't actually present), it's kind of hard to say that they really have a great influence on the overall quality of the seasons, especially given that the Discord episodes were made along with season 1. But really, in all cases, the writers manage to pull it off pretty well. Time will tell if they can keep it up.
Okay, one last thing before I wrap this up. This isn't an exceptionally continuity heavy show; the vast majority of the episodes are watchable in just about any order. Of course, that doesn't stop the writers from sticking in little bits of continuity. The first season has a sort of ongoing subplot about the gala; it actually helps drive the plots of three different episodes ("Ticket Master", "Suited for Success", and "The Best Night Ever") and the dresses pop up in a couple different places. The second season arguably goes even further, as "Lesson Zero" essentially changes the pattern the show follows so that Twilight doesn't need to be the one writing the report in each episode. Unfortunately, outside of that there isn't much in terms of continuity outside of little joke references (like RD reading a Daring Do book in "A Friend in Deed").
The second season's main continuity arguable has a more pronounced effect, given that it frees the writers up a bit, but it doesn't quite tie the season together like the first season's continuity did. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I don't really think the show needs much of a continuity to work given that it's primarily slice of life. But even so, the gala subplot from season 1 was nice in that it managed to pop up without really intruding much in the other episodes ("Suited for Success" and "Ticket Master" could both have been pulled off with another event standing in for the gala), while still allowing the finale to serve not only as an epic finisher, but by tying up that thread that had been running through the series. Granted, "The Best Night Ever" didn't really have any other "finale" attributes beyond resolving that plot thread, but it managed to feel like it was completing something larger than itself, which is a great thing for a finale to have.
Thing is, season 2 didn't really have that kind of running subplot, even though it would have benefited greatly from something along those lines. Yes, it does spread out the reports among the cast more, but the fact that other ponies can write the reports doesn't really drive any plots; it's less a plot device and and more an excuse for the writers to not worry about how to get Twilight involved. But the fact that other ponies now write reports is never really mentioned within the context of the show itself; it doesn't influence the plot of any particular episodes.
The reason I say season 2 would have benefited from some sort of recurring plotline, is because it would have the finale a better sense of summing up the season. As is the finale is certainly epic, but it could have functioned just as well as a premier. There isn't any sense of a wrap up. The other reason is that it could have easily resolved one of the issues a lot of people had with the finale: Shining Armor could have been introduced much earlier, meaning it wouldn't feel like he was coming out of nowhere in the finale (Cadance could go either way; it's much less likely that Twilight would bring up her babysitter). It wouldn't have necessarily had to have alluded to the finale, but one or two references to Twilight wanting to catch up with her family would have gone a long way towards making it more cohesive.
There really isn't much to say here; there are definitely some shifts in various elements of the two seasons. Season 2 risks a bit more and clumps the characters a bit, but on a large scale it's more or less comparable to the first season. It's definitely improved in some regards (animation upgrades, the CMC's characterization), but on the whole I can't definitively say that season 2 is superior to season 1. Both seasons have ups and downs, and ultimately it depends on the viewer.