Ah, My Little Pony. A name that, in the minds of many people, invokes images of cheaply-made and comically saccharine cartoons with zero interesting stories, zero interesting characters, and an air of crass commercialism; after all, the cartoons are based on a popular girls' toy line, and all the cartoons have to do is sell said toys. But Friendship is Magic, which premiered last October on newly-launched cable network The Hub, is a very different creature indeed. Created and developed by Lauren Faust, who some people may remember as a writer for The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a series with compelling storylines, wonderful and engaging characters, exceptional animation, delightful humour, and no crass commercialism anywhere in sight. This show, which by all intents and purposes should not have been good, is one of the best animated series to come along in years.
Why? Let's start over.
You may have heard in the last few months that this series has picked up a massive Internet following of primarily teenage & adult males, who call themselves "bronies". To those who would ask why grown men would watch a My Little Pony cartoon and express sincere, non-ironic enjoyment of it, I counter with another question: why do adults watch animated series like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Tiny Toons, the aforementioned Powerpuff Girls, or Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends? All these series have one thing in common: they all can be enjoyed by adults on a different level from the target audience of young children. They all have elements that cater to adults, be they parents with kids or hardcore animation fans. Such is the case with Friendship is Magic.
Let's start with our protagonists. There's the antisocial bookworm Twilight Sparkle, her assistant baby dragon Spike, the hyperactive Pinkie Pie, the bashful Fluttershy, the hardworking Applejack, the overconfident yet loyal Rainbow Dash, and the glamorous fashionista Rarity. All these brilliantly voiced and characterized individuals live in the cleverly-named kingdom of Equestria, whose supreme ruler, Princess Celestia, has sent Twilight to the small town of Ponyville in order for her to make some friends. Sound cheesy? It is, for the most part. But watching the series, one finds it hard to believe that this cartoon even bears the My Little Pony name. This series, while definitely relying on extreme cuteness for its character designs (especially in Fluttershy's case), is not sickly sweet and saccharine like the cartoons that preceded it; it's more focused on its characters and storylines than it is on selling toys.
After the two-part premiere which introduces the characters, the series evolves into an "adventure of the week" format, where Twilight and her friends have to solve a dilemma or work out the kinks in their friendships. Often, characters have fierce rivalries between each other, or don't get along together as well as others. These are not flawless, stereotypical, shallow characters like you usually see in girls' cartoons. These are distinct individuals with definite flaws who are trying to accept their differences in order to maintain their friendships; not a bad moral for a cartoon that's meant to sell toys.
Basically, in order to truly enjoy this series, you need to take all your preconceptions about My Little Pony and throw them in a bin. Yes, it is a show about candy-coloured ponies, but that's where the similarities between new and old end. One particularly notable aspect of the show is the music; every so often, an episode will have a musical number. But unlike, say, a Land Before Time sequel where the songs have no bearing on the plot and serve only to slow things down and annoy the viewer, the songs in Friendship is Magic, on top of being well-written and performed, only pop up when they have a bearing on the plot. Of note is the season 1 finale's song, At the Gala, an "I Want" song of epic proportions-- the lyrics, music and animation are flawless. And even when the songs appear out of nowhere, the show is self-aware enough to lampshade such annoyances; in one instance, a cheesy song by Pinkie Pie about sharing and caring is declared by the other characters to be the worst song they've ever heard.
On top of that, the show does occasionally throw in jokes clearly geared towards an adult viewer; for instance, in one episode, Pinkie Pie chases after a frantically-fleeing Rainbow Dash by slowly hopping after her, much in the same way Pepe le Pew chases after his feline affection in Looney Tunes. One scene where Twilight and Spike are chased around town by a massive mob is accompanied by a song sounding suspiciously similar to Yakety Sax of Benny Hill Show fame. And one character jokingly refers to Spike as "Huffy, the Magic Dragon" after he storms off trying to get some sleep. It's references like this and the lack of blatant commercialism that let adult viewers know they're allowed to like the show.
All in all, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is one of the most delightful and original animated series to come around in a long, long time. There is a reason it has acquired such a massive fandom on the Internet; it's a genuinely entertaining and well-made series that totally subverts its girly origins. If you like cartoons, you owe it to yourself to see this show.
UPDATE 19 Dec 2011: The episode list for the DVD has been released. Of course, including the two-part premiere episode, "Friendship is Magic", is a wise choice, considering it introduces the characters and also has a particularly engaging (and surprisingly dark) adventure story. "Over a Barrel" is notable for abandoning the regular setting of the show and opting instead for a pony pastiche of the Wild West; while not the greatest episode, it is still very funny and engaging. "Hearth's Warming Eve" is the holiday-themed episode, aired on The Hub just two days ago. One of the best episodes of the series thus far, the voice acting is top-notch, the message is profoundly touching, the storyline is well-written and strikingly executed, and the brief crowd song that closes the episode is a thing of beauty. "The Last Roundup" is evidently a future episode, as it has not been aired or even announced for broadcast as of this writing.
My advice to any bronies reading this: buy this DVD. It helps support the show, and if it sells well, we could eventually see season box sets in the future, maybe even on Blu-Ray (as the show is produced in HD, it would benefit immensely from such a set). This is still a rather young series, and it needs all the popularity it can get.
UPDATE #2 24 Dec 2011: "The Last Roundup" has been announced for broadcast on The Hub on 21 January. This effectively means the DVD will contain three episodes from season 1, and two from season 2.
UPDATE #3 21 Jan 2012: Gonna make this one quick: "The Last Roundup" is fantastic. That episode alone should make this disc worth buying, for bronies and casual fans alike. Especially for bronies, considering which character finally gets lines in this episode...