Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
Note from Josh:
One day last week, I was sitting calmly at home when Joe, my 16 year old son familiar to readers of this blog as my periodic stand-in (and current HSG intern), came in, outraged. “I can’t believe what happened!” I thought perhaps the Supreme Court had ruled on something. But it was better. “My Little Pony just used the Idiot Plot,” he said, sputtering, and then gave me a 10 minute explanation. It was fascinating and cogent. He has agreed to summarize it below, and I thought it has somewhat surprisingly strong relevance to our readership. JG
Before I begin, I should warn you: this is an essay about the significance of a writing trope found in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Yes, the show about cartoon ponies with names like Princess Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie going on adventures where they learn about friendship and being nice to each other. If thinking about this undermines the overall message of the essay for you, bear with me. I actually have something to say here. If it’s too distracting, turn back now. It’s only getting more ridiculous from here.
Of all the writing tropes and clichés that can be commonly found in media, the one I can’t stand the most is one called “The Idiot Plot.” The Idiot Plot, a name coined by the late film critic Roger Ebert, is the kind of plot where a misunderstanding arises that could be solved in minutes if the characters weren’t idiots. Say, in a romantic comedy, a girl spots her boyfriend from afar huddled up with another girl, making her believe he is having an affair. In actuality, he was just showing this other girl a video, and when he gets home, he is bewildered to see his girlfriend so mad. In the world of regular humans, a situation such as this would be resolved by him explaining the situation to her, with the other girl backing him up. It might be hard to believe at first, but if he’s sincere enough, they can hook up again and live happily ever after. But, being the Idiot Plot, he now has to jump through hoops to regain her love (ideally through several misunderstandings that make him look like a clod).
The biggest problem with The Idiot Plot is that it is so completely out of touch with how humans actually act. It can work in the right hands, but most of the time it’s just a frustrating cliché. You feel as though the writer is shutting his brain off to prevent himself from thinking of a logical solution. Following The Idiot Plot’s logic in the real world would be, well, idiotic. If you accidentally send someone a text where autocorrect has made it say “Someone took my whale” instead of “Someone took my wallet,” you wouldn’t need to beg their forgiveness and stand outside their window playing Peter Gabriel. It can be dismissed with a “WALLET, not WHALE. LOL. Damn autocorrect” and forgotten.
That being said, let’s talk about Friendship is Magic…I kinda like it. Not just on a guilty pleasure level, either; I find this a genuinely well-crafted show with interesting situations and characters. I’ve been following the show for about 5 years now, and while it’s not the next The Wire or anything, it’s still perfectly harmless, and quite enjoyable if you allow yourself to be sucked into the world of Equestria and overlook the silliness for a while. That being said, I’m not treating this as anything more significant than what it is. But I hold it to a pretty high standard because of its solid craftsmanship, but I’m not trying to make it out to be the animation event of the century. Just a good show.
Part of those high standards stems from the writing. Despite having to deal with some pretty silly stuff (if I ever tried to write anything that contained a sentence like “Twilight Sparkle and her friends use their Elements of Harmony to destroy the evil Nightmare Moon and release the banished Princess Luna,” I’d probably lose my mind), the writers of the show make it all sound natural and interesting, building the world of Equestria and coming up with creative adventures to send the gang on, as the show is very inspired by Greek mythology and pop culture. The morals can sometimes be stupid (one episode says that you should blindly accept things if they satisfy a friend who believes the same thing) but they never talk down to the viewer, which might be why the show has such a large fanbase of adults. I often like examining the episodes for how the writers develop the plots and keep the characters developing, and it just makes the skill with which the writers balance out kid-friendliness with emotion and adventure all the more impressive, as it shows they have respect for the audience.
Of course, there have been missteps. The last episode I saw was particularly flawed. It’s called “Princess Spike,” and I must warn you that it has an unbelievably silly-sounding plot.
In the episode, the four princesses – Celestia, Luna, Candence, and our heroine Twilight – are holding a royal summit in Canterlot, where delegates from all areas of Equestria are gathered to discuss the important issues of the day. Spike, a little purple dragon and Twilight’s assistant, needs to make sure she gets her beauty sleep, as she has been preparing for the summit all night and is exhausted. When the delegates start bringing up problems they want Twilight to resolve, Spike tries to take things into his own claws so as not to wake her. Shenanigans ensue.
While I was watching the episode, I slowly began to realize that it was an ideal example of The Idiot Plot. Kids’ shows in general thrive on The Idiot Plot, and “Princess Spike” has it in full force. Imagine you are in Spike’s place, and two delegates have just arrived to have a dispute settled over which one gets to have space for a conference. They demand to see Twilight and won’t take no for an answer. If it were me, I’d remember that there are three other princesses in Canterlot who are currently awake and perfectly fine at resolving conflicts, and I’d tell the delegates to see one of them because Twilight is asleep. Being reasonable adults, they’d accept these terms. Problem solved. It’d take about a minute. Any further issues could also be brought up to the princesses, such as the leaky water main whose fixing is prevented due to being too loud for Twilight to sleep.
This isn’t cool with The Idiot Plot. After all, there are 22 minutes to fill. So, rather than seeing the princesses, Spike has to make orders in Twilight’s place without conferring with anyone beforehand, which leads to disaster that can only be resolved with a heartfelt speech and a lesson about not getting carried away with responsibility. Is it worth all the mess? Who cares, problem solved. It pains me to have to use a show I enjoy as an example of a writing trope I really hate, but I feel it’s important to get this across: using The Idiot Plot is a bad idea. Unless it is a last resort, a story’s conflict should stem from an actual, legitimate problem. Hinging a conflict on something as light and easily-resolvable as a simple misunderstanding is silly. If we, the reader/viewer, are supposed to sympathize with the main characters, they should generally be intelligent. If your audience pities your character’s intelligence level rather than envies it, you’ve done something wrong.
That’s why it’s so odd that Friendship is Magic used it. These are smart writers! They’ve made great episodes that had smarter plots. I mean, what about “Pinkie Pride”? That was a great episode! Or how about “Sonic Rainboom” or “Sisterhooves Social,” those were very deep, interesting –
Hey, where’d everybody go?