Saturday, May 10, 2014

March of the Ponies: Top 10 Major Characters

[NOTE: Links to other March of the Ponies stories will go here as they are published.Part 1 - Abridged MLP historyPart 2 - Review of Lauren Faust's prior works, Part 3 - MLP Comics (TwilightRainbowDashRarityFluttershyPinkiePieApplejackCMCs/Celestia,Spike/LunaNightmare Rarity arc (main series)), Part 4 - Equestria Girls review, Part 5 - Fan-made episodes (Dusk's DawnDouble RainboomSnowdrop); Part 6 - Fan works (MusicDoctor WhoovesFriendship is Witchcraft/Mentally Advanced Series, Fanfictions), Part 7 - Season Reviews: Season 1, Season 2Season 3Magical Mystery CureSeason 4], Part 8 - Final Conclusions, Top Supporting Characters

And now that I've belted out the minor characters, let's talk the major characters! These are the top 10 who have had multiple episodes featuring them prominently, have been involved in the background, and have real developing arcs that can be traced from appearance to appearance. Ergo, here are the Top 10 Main (not Mane) Characters of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

NOTE: I do not think ANY of these characters are bad. The separation between 1 and 10 is not all that significant.

10. Spike
No. of Featured Episodes: 8
Best Featured Episodes: Secret of My Excess, Inspiration Manifestation

Spike was clearly getting the shaft in this list. Most of his episodes have been either boring or outright terrible. If I'd extended this list one more spot, "Spike at Your Service" was next in line, and although it ranked highly on my Season 3 list, that's more an indictment on Season 3 than a compliment to the episode.

This is a character who probably should be better than he is, but who has had the severe misfortune of having a writing staff that doesn't take him as seriously as they should. Spike is a character who provides endless support, can be a detached voice of reason, has a sense of honor and can be really funny thanks to snide, sarcastic remarks.

Unfortunately, more often than not, he's played up as incompetent and little more than a piece of furniture. "Power Ponies" has played him as a sidekick, and "Equestria Girls" forced him into the role of dog.

I liken his role in the show more to the role of Alfred in Batman, providing good advice/support while occasionally getting his hands dirty in feuds. But until more episodes besides "Lesson Zero" and the like start taking that route, I'm left with a character who produces some of the most painfully awkward moments in the show.

9. Scootaloo
No. of Featured Episodes: 2 (specifically), 7 (combined with CMC group-focused episodes)
Best Featured Episodes: Sleepless in Ponyville, Flight to the Finish

Let's get the chicken joke thing out of the way: I am very disappointed that among this massive fandom, there is no video of Scootaloo being in a Chicken Boo sketch from Animaniacs.

Anyway, Scootaloo has some real potential for good stories. She can't fly long after the point that's normal for pegasi, which was finally addressed in Flight to the Finish. She also wants a sisterly relationship with Rainbow Dash like the other CMCs have with their sisters.

However, there hasn't been an episode that expanded on that relationship since Sleepless in Ponyville. FTTF had a nice conversation between the two, but that was more a conversation for the whole CMC group, not just Scootaloo.

In CMC episodes, she's generally the most irritating member for me. She's so obsessed with how she's perceived that it leads to bad gags that come across as RD-lite.

Scootaloo has great potential to move up this list, but as of now, there just isn't enough there to move her higher.

8. Sweetie Belle
No. of Featured Episodes: 2 (specifically), 7 (combined with CMC group-focused episodes)
Best Featured Episodes: Sisterhooves Social, For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils

I think people give too much credit to this character's appeal as a 'cute kid with squeaky voice.' I like this character fine, but it has less to do with the squeaky voice and more to do with the arcs they've built up.

Her most notable trait is her relationship with her sister, Rarity. Her two best episodes are when she's trying to define how she relates to her older sister. FWTSBT was a great look into her insecurities that built up over years of having to go through life after Rarity and trying to measure up to her. The storyline in SS shows that she really does look up to her sister and really wants to stand as an equal, but her klutziness hurts her ability to do so.

This is where her limits as a character come in. There have been plenty of moments where she's had character traits introduced - klutzy behavior, love of singing/songwriting, desire for fame, etc. - but they're only touched on briefly. Sweetie Belle is a character who needs a true solo episode. So often, her focus is split between her and her sister, or her and the rest of the CMCs.

I like that in CMC episodes that she's really a voice of reason/idea pony in the group and can keep the plot in place, but this leads to her getting less notable screen time than the other two in many cases. She's a character that does a lot with the screen time she has, but she really needs more. When she's not the focus, I constantly forget she's in the story.

FWTSBT is a great start, and that episode already moved her above Scootaloo, but I need more Sweetie Belle in the show in order to move her higher.

7. Pinkie Pie
No. of Featured Episodes (as both the major and secondary focus): 11
Best Featured Episodes: Party of One, Pinkie Apple Pie, Pinkie Pride

Oh, I am going to get SO MUCH CRAP for Pinkie being the lowest ranked of the Mane 6. I expect flack no matter who ranked at the back, but this one specifically will probably draw some raised eyebrows.

Yes, I'm aware she's got some of the best jokes in the series. Yes, I'm aware episodes that star her ranked highly on my episode lists. Yes, I'm aware she's part of most of the songs I rate highly. But here's the thing about Pinkie: What does she actually do when she's not starring in an episode?

More often than not, Pinkie is a comic relief character in plot-based stories or a gag character who moves the plot forward in a manner that wouldn't suit other characters (finding books out of nowhere, popping up in random places, etc.). These aren't terrible things, especially in animated shows, but it makes her a 'less-is-more' kind of character when she isn't the focus.

And indeed, when she gets significant time in an episode not about her, it's a crap-shoot whether she'll be good in the show. Worst-case scenario: She's making over-the-top, annoying commentary like in "Bats!" or "Filli Vanilli."

She's one of the few characters I find myself becoming irritated with in episodes, and it's kind of the risk/reward you take with a character as out there as Pinkie. She's totally dependent on timing, and if it's not perfect, the gag falls flat.

More often than not, they hit, but as strong as this cast is, there are enough misses that it hurts her ranking.

6. Twilight Sparkle
No. of Featured Episodes (as major and secondary focus only - emsemble doesn't count): 16
Best Featured Episodes: Lesson Zero, It's About Time, Testing Testing 1, 2, 3

Anyone remember when I talked about the complaint that Batman is usually the least interesting character in his own stories?

I personally don't buy it, but Twilight could be given a very similar discussion (and in this case, she actually comes down on the wrong end in many episodes). Yes, I'm calling Twilight the Batman of the Mane 6.

She gets the most screen time of any character on the show, as much of it passes through her perspective, but that leads to her being largely a bystander in many episodes. "Pinkie Apple Pie," as much as I like it, showcases what the main issue has been with Twilight post-Faust: She's more of a catalyst to start stories than she is a character in the story.

Now I'd argue that that may be what she needs to be. As a princess, the show has declared much of her original character arc to be completed, and so she needs to fade into the background in favor of characters who can actually develop.

But the thing is, she has the ability to grow beyond it (I'd note that I'm writing this BEFORE the Season 4 finale) and so it's frustrating to not see more of her princesshood expanded on in a format that isn't "Equestria Girls."

It's especially odd because she's a character who can be REALLY funny. She's got great facial and vocal tics that show real frustration or joy in a hilarious manner. She was great for brief gags in "Cutie Mark Chronicles" and "Keep Calm and Flutter On." Heck, she was both a great supportive friend and a hilarious teacher in "Testing Testing 1, 2, 3."

Twilight is at her funniest in Daffy Duck-esque scenarios. She's great when she's crafting ideas like in "Feeling Pinkie Keen" and "Lesson Zero" that are hair-brained and destined for spectacular failure. Her reactions are amazing to watch.

As a princess, she may not be able to do that very often, but she can add her own socially awkward flair to stories. This has been an issue throughout many of the seasons. She's just the occasional reasonable suggestion in the den of a crazy plot.

Twilight has diminished in the rankings largely due to Season 4, but she was only a spot or two higher. She started out as a character learning about the culture of Ponyville, so many early appearances showed her as a bystander. And as the seasons moved, though she had episodes and moments on her own, she's the greatest victim of the "Meghan McCarthy Episode Trope Checklist," which involves her in some of the weakest episodes in the show.

I know I'm saying the charater with the most screen time needs more screen time, but so much has been done with her so quickly that I feel like we're playing catch-up and she's coming across as a character who things happen to, rather than an active member of the plot. And it needs to be in an episode developing who she is as a person, not her role in Ponyville or Equestria.

5. Rarity
No. of Featured Episodes (major/secondary only): 12
Best Featured Episodes: Suited For Success, Sisterhooves Social, Rarity Takes Manehattan

The very fact that a character with this fashion background didn't make me want to punch them is credit enough to Lauren Faust. The fact that she cracks the top half of this list is a testament to the show's desire to break the mold.

Rarity's character in most shows aimed for girls would annoy me because she doesn't like getting involved in a messy situation (figuratively or literally), comes across as self-righteous and is clearly a stereotype. Here, she's the Raven of the team.

By that I mean she's the character whose very nature (generous) is in direct conflict with what she feels is her destiny (becoming famous in the highly political fashion world). As such, she's in a constant struggle with her better nature, which is great narrative tension. Episodes that focus on this are immediately interesting because it's unclear which route she'll take.

The fact that she's the Element of Generosity implies that when the chips are down, she generally selects her better nature, but that doesn't mean her stories can't push her.

"Sweet and Elite" and "Rarity Takes Manehattan" show Rarity fighting, and losing to for a time, her more vain side when put in a situation where she seeks acceptance from the elites of society. At the same time, "Suited For Success" shows her at her absolute best, biting the bullet and making gowns she KNOWS are terrible to please her friends at the cost of her reputation as a designer. (Seriously, give Charlotte Fullerton more episodes!)

What knocks Rarity is that she tends to come across as more of an irritation in episodes that don't feature her. Her commentary is generally unhelpful (in some cases, just flat out irritating) and frequently breaks up the story. It's a similar problem to Pinkie Pie, but Rarity can overcome it better with a great dichotomy between her goals and her inner nature.

4. Applejack
No. of Featured Episodes (major/secondary): 13
Best Featured Episodes: Fall Weather Friends, Pinkie Apple Pie, Somepony to Watch Over Me

Did the writing staff forget AJ was a thing for like two years then suddenly have an epiphany about how to use her effectively this year?

Applejack sat near the back of the pack when I started drafting this list halfway through this Pony-thon, but since "Apple Family Reunion," it seems like they finally started coming up with ideas for her, and the fourth season was absolutely solid.

This season was the first time I really felt the Element of Honesty was truly being displayed, and I think the writing staff deserve a lot of credit for this turnaround.

Full disclosure, I have wanted to like AJ as a character since early in the series. I thought the country gimmick was amazing and when I did a Mane 6 personality test during this, I got this result:

So yeah, that should give you a feel for how I look at entertainment: I care about how elements relate to the plot and the purpose they serve. I'm more about the episode's functionality than its overall look.

But yeah, back to AJ. The early seasons really struggled with her. She had some good showings early on with "Look Before You Sleep" (again, kudos Charlotte Fullerton), "Fall Weather Friends" and "Applebuck Season," but she was rarely of use during the rest of the episodes. She was kind of in the position Twilight's in now: responding to situations and having the plot happen to her more than being an active player.

The later seasons have been significantly better for her. Though most of her character arc is done, she's still able to be active in stories and is able to be a rock for her friends while not becoming the den mother (Sisterhooves Social appeared to be a template they used to write her in later seasons, as I get that episode's vibe a lot when she's in supporting roles.)

Even so, she can still be interesting and have insecurities, keeping her character from stagnating. She's proven to be a great starring character (Pinkie Apple Pie), co-star (Somepony to Watch Over Me) and secondary main character (Simple Ways). At this rate, she'll be near the top in no time...

3. Rainbow Dash
No. of Featured Episodes (major/secondary): 13
Best Featured Episodes: Read It and Weep, Sleepless in Ponyville, Testing Testing 1, 2, 3

... Unless Rainbow Dash keeps up her tradition of a great development episode every season.

Rainbow has A LOT of really good episodes where she's either the focus or the secondary focus. Picking her top 3 episodes were actually took a good while. And strangely, it's the ones where Spitfire is out of the picture that she's at her best.

I enjoy Dash's character best when she's dealing with an insecurity or having to act more maturely for the CMCs. One of the best moments of Season 1 is when RD actually blushed when she sees how much Scootaloo looked up to her and wanted to know her cutie mark story.

And even better are episodes that display this relationship, like "Sleepless in Ponyville" or "Flight to the Finish."

And best of all are the insecurity episodes like "Sonic Rainboom," "Read It and Weep" and "Testing Testing 1, 2, 3." The writers seem to get better with Dash the deeper they go into the series. As such, she keeps steadily climbing my rankings each time I do a checkpoint.

That's saying a lot, because she was an average character for a while. An obnoxious flake who always came through when the time was needed. Granted, they wasted a golden opportunity to show her that that course of action leads to failure by inserting that idiotic Mare-Do-Well character instead, but that's what I mean by early failings.

I realized Dash had turned a corner in "Hurricane Fluttershy," when she was showing her more supportive side and clearly restrained herself because she knew the friend she was talking to and how sore the subject was. It was the first time I saw real emotional awareness in the character and I love that it's stuck around ever since (mostly).

Like I said with AJ, Dash had flashes of brilliance in the early seasons, but unlike AJ, Dash was intended to be a Sam Puckett-esque character early in her arc. The staff built to a defining, corner-turning moment for her and it paid off well. She's not easy to fit into some plots, but I've really come to enjoy episodes that focus on her (as long as the Wonderbolts don't appear directly. Seriously, how did "Wonderbolt Academy" and "Rainbow Falls" trip over themselves so much?)

2. Apple Bloom
No. of Featured Episodes: 4 (specifically), 9 (combined with CMC group-focused episodes)
Best Featured Episodes: Cutie Pox, Family Appreciation Day, Somepony to Watch Over Me

Why isn't Apple Bloom higher on more Best Pony lists?

Is it because we aren't supposed to take the individual CMCs more seriously? Because Apple Bloom is freaking awesome.

AB has the distinction of being the CMC that was introduced episodes before their formation, so there was a character in place beforehand. Her first real role as a character was as the young voice of reason in "Bridle Gossip" and she played the role perfectly. It also established a character trait: a desire to be seen as more mature because it grants her more respect.

Apple Bloom is a character all about wanting the respect and mystique of her family elders, but she also has a child's impatience when it comes to getting it. This is what sparks her conflicts in "Mark of the Cutie" and especially "Cutie Pox."

Where Scootaloo's narrative tension seems to come from her desire to maintain a facade of coolness to hide her insecurities (getting scared at ghost stories, being unable to fly, etc.), and Sweetie Belle's comes from her wanting to break from her sister's shadow and become more confident (too scared to sing/songwrite in Season 1), Apple Bloom's is about being seen as being on equal footing.

She wants the cutie mark not only to stop the teasing, she wants it because it puts her on equal footing with her classmates. She wants to run the farm briefly in "STWOM" because it puts her closer to equal footing with the rest of the family. She wants to avoid telling on Babs in "One Bad Apple," I believe, because it makes her look less capable than older ponies.

And she's also developed a real respect of her family through the episodes. Probably her best performance before "STWOM" was "Family Appreciation Day," where she starts feeling insecure about her Granny Smith embarrassing her (leading to an amazing "Weekend at Bernie's" callback), only to develop a sense of Apple family pride once she realizes the great things her granny did. It's always great seeing AB in context of her family because she's generally the funniest of the four and she stands out for it.

During CMC episodes, she's the main strategist for the CMCs and generally is the most capable. Basically, she's Applejack if we'd seen AJ during her arc of growing up, and it really makes me wish we'd seen more of it.

Apple Bloom is always interesting to have in an episode and has a spitfire mouth that spouts out some of the best jokes in the series.

1. Fluttershy
No. of Featured Episodes (major/secondary): 10
Best Featured Episodes: Putting Your Hoof Down, Hurricane Fluttershy, Keep Calm and Flutter On

Some of you are probably thinking Fluttershy is here solely because she's the main focus of "Hurricane Fluttershy," which got a perfect 10/10 from me.

And sure, she absolutely is getting points for that episode, but what puts her over all the other characters is a term I used earlier: narrative tension.

Look at who Fluttershy is as a character: an introvert, uncomfortable in social situations, but able to step up when needed. Those are the ingredients needed to make a character interesting at all times.

Any time Fluttershy is out and about, there's a potential for conflict. You root for her to be able to manage without incident, and yet you want to see how she'll deal with a situation. You hope for success, while fearing she'll be emotionally hurt by an experience.

But the thing is, it's not all just one issue that repeats itself. "Dragonshy" showed her being hyper-focused on her fears because of her ultimate fear of dragons. "HF" showed PTSD from bullying and trepidation toward doing a task she is neither good at nor enjoys. "Putting Your Hoof Down" showed timidity in situations where she needs to assert herself. "Filli Vanilli" shows her dealing with stage fright. Her one-shot comic showed her fearing negative responses to a work she put her total passion into. She's the ideal character to show insecurity lessons in a cornucopia of situations.

And when she's not dealing in various timidity stories, she's displaying her element of Kindness. "A Bird in the Hoof" showed she's kind to animals to the point that she'll break laws and risk arrest to help them. (Seriously, kudos Charlotte Fullerton!) "Keep Calm and Flutter On" showed her willingness to offer kindness and trust as the catalyst for reforming Discord, the only villain the show's produced that wasn't a complete mess.

But the timidity and kindness are not static traits, either. In "PYHD," Fluttershy shows what would happen if she shut down her better nature and just went OFF. And it's amazing. Yeah, she borders on crossing a line, but honestly, I know the feeling of holding back to avoid confrontation and dealing with it by coming up with comebacks you'll probably never use. Fluttershy uses those comebacks in this episode and shows why people aren't advised to send the angry letters they write to let off steam.

I argue she's the Superman of the group. Kind to everyone and anyone, but always walking on eggshells to try to avoid hurting anyone. When I watch "PYHD" I'm remided of that scene in Action Comics #775 where Supes appears to go full power and annihilate his opponents. It's very much the same balance Fluttershy has to deal with and because her timidity is so much more pronounced, she works perfectly for the show.

Besides that point, being so timid to begin with makes any time she goes outside that persona to be more aggressive tremendously funny, which makes her a great source of humor in the show.

Admittedly, her fourth season stuff isn't great, but I'm always willing to give a Fluttershy story a chance because it usually leads to a fun ride.

How would your rank them? Let me know in the comments.

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