We've seen a lot of incredible episodes over the years, and last time around I dove into what are essentially my top 10. What makes one worthy of the halls of pony importance though? How do you make the stars align and leave an impression in fandom that has become ever the more critical over the past few years?
Since this subject is so beyond opinion based just like the last one, I'm again going go to ahead and warn you that these are all primarily my thoughts. I promise I won't go too overboard on the Trixie, but do expect some somewhat weird expectations. I also want to point out that this is not a compilation of the best of the best episodes, but instead focus on appeal and memorability.
Anyway, dive on down below as I dig into what makes a excellent pony episode!
Pacing... Pacing... Always with the Pacing!
Remember that old chart thing they always showed you in English class, with the exposition, rising action, climax, and so on? I sure as hell didn't until I started this editorial and researched! Turns out it was actually important. It's something that makes up the bulk of what we see in 22 minute episodes of anything that isn't a continued multi-episode series. Each part of that pyramid can be stretched and warped to fit whatever narrative you are going for, and going overboard on one section can have negative consequences on others when time is limited.
I'm going to use Moondancer here as the example of what I consider to be a perfectly paced episode. You can pretty much chop "Amending Fences" into 4.5 minute segments and match that graph up there almost exactly. Each section clearly plays itself out in a way that gives every other part sufficient time to fully explore their problems and solutions. Learning about Moondancer's past and present helped us grow attached to her otherwise grouchy character. The relatively long falling action leading to ending gave us a sense of closure and happiness at her potential for a better future with friends reconnected. This is everything a slice-of-life feel good story should have, and it was paced perfectly.
Some episodes tend to cram the final two steps into a short amount of time. I loved Chrysalis's invasion of Canterlot, but the fall of the changeling queen was pretty sudden considering how much time we had to build up to it. It's still a great episode, but it could have used an extra scene or two near the end to pad out her defeat. Random love explosion really didn't do it for me. Canterlot Wedding shines because of something else though:
New characters that build canon for the mane 6!
How exciting is it to see a new character teased in an episode trailer a few days before it releases? It's almost like rolling the dice. You never know how they will be received by the fandom once they are fully fleshed out and the hype building up to it is always entertaining. Cadance and Shining Armor were both potential drama bombs, but done incredibly well in the end.
Lets switch away from weddings and move toward someone else I thought was used well. Coloratura here is another example of a character that can really help save an episode.. In my opinion, The Mane Attraction was a story that suffered from some unabashedly wonky pacing. The way many of the sections are rushed shows that they had to cut some plot corners to fit the songs in.
Thankfully, Rara swooped in and gave us an excellent edition to the overall pony cast. Learning about her camp life with Applejack, followed by their falling out and eventual heartfelt reunion felt great. While the storyline itself was rushed, it left us with more Applejack related history and characterization, along with a new pony who fits right in with Equestria's ever-growing lore.
The songs were super catchy, and the design behind all forms of the Coloratura inspired a swarm of drawings from artists around the fandom. She left a mark, and that's the best way to see longevity in a new pony!
Memorable Poni Interactions
An episode's overall plot can be the most basic in the world, but if the ponies are interacting in entertaining ways while going through the motions, I'm always beyond entertained. It's up there in my list of most important things a FIM story accomplishes.
Look Before You Sleep was an episode that not a lot of people were thrilled with way back in the early days of the fandom. It was composed largely of ponies people weren't yet attached to, and was one of the first episodes that went full on "girly subject". Despite that, I've actually listened to it loads of times over the years in he background. There weren't any epic battles, or major world ending problems, just three completely different personalities all interacting with one-another in an entertaining way.
I could go on and on about adorkable Twilight and how much she grew on me, but the real stars here were Rarity and Applejack. The brash contrast between a perfectionist fashionista and a down to earth farm pony really kept the narrative flowing. It sold a lot of people on these two, and showed how well a pair of completely opposing personalities can interact. The episode was almost 100% a celebration in dialogue.
Another good example is "Testing 1...2...3", where we once again see a clash of styles in the studious Twilight facing off against the more Careless Rainbow. These episodes are where our mane 6 buddies really seem to shine, and something rarely repeated in the more adventure focused romps into Equestria.
LAYERS of ENTERTAINMENT!
There is a reason why we have tons of extra ponies outside of the mane 6 that get a bunch of fanon love. Friendship is Magic, since day one, has absolutely rocked it in the background of an episode. It provides an extra layer of entertainment that really keeps the audience scanning deep for anything interesting. A lot more discussion and post-episode hype happens when the scenes are busy. The episode today is an excellent example of this, and one I ended up pausing multiple times just to explore what was going on back there. I envy whoever here is doing the followup for this one.
Speaking of followups, they were literally born of this aspect of the show, pointing out the movie references and mini-storylines involving ponies that, prior to Slice of Life, were only fleshed out by us. I love seeing Lyra and Bonbon sharing a smoothie or Derpy slamming into something. The way the city scenes play out always makes Equestria feel much more alive than other cartoons. Some of the originally generic backgrounders have more characterization than even minor one-shot characters get at this point. There have been a few times where a somewhat bland episode has been saved by a flood of brony joy as something insane happens that has nothing at all to do with the story.
It's not everyone's cup of tea of course, but I've always felt that the most talked about episodes have multiple layers of potential discussion and canon to explore.
Dem Feelz, Complex Plot
No, this has nothing to do with pony butt, even if the last few seasons seem to be exercising that element more than usual.
This is the last of what I'm going to cover here, but also one of the most important. It may not effect everyone equally, and can change for some simply by what character is involved, but a lot of us really grow an attachment to these ponies. It's something a lot of us crave, and I'm probably not alone in thinking that the best episodes out there are ones that leave an impact on the heartstrings!
Whether it be your favorite pony going through a rough 18 minutes and ending on a high note, or Gilda being a dick to Fluttershy, Friendship is Magic absolutely shines when it makes you feel something. If I see a comment section filled with people saying they cried or were OUTRAGED at an event that took place, I know, for better or worst, it's going to be a memorable episode.
Complexity is also important for me. I'm not expecting Game of Thrones level storytelling here, but avoiding the basic "Here's a moral, here's ponies learning the moral by doing the opposite of the moral" trope that some ( *cough* Rainbow Dash) episodes fall into tends to put me to sleep.
Surprises and unexpected twists keep the attention going in these instances. I had no idea Dashie's retired Wonderbolt mentor would ever do something so unpony by framing her to protect his flying records, and the episode left a much deeper impact on me because of it.
Honestly, this was one of the harder editorials I've written. There are so many elements that make a pony episode appealing, and everyone is completely different. Feel free to flame away on my points or point out blatantly obvious things I missed. I rewrote so much I think Blogger thought I was having a stroke.
Maybe that's a good thing though? Not the stroke, but the fact that something like this is hard to write. I like to say Pony isn't very complex, but when you step back and look at it as a whole, it really does have a lot going on at any given moment. We, as a fandom, have created so much to augment it that canon and fanon lines sometimes blur for me. In the end, an episodes worthiness is really entirely up to you, but hopefully this gave you some things to look out for when deciding on your own favorites.