I miss the Hub. It premiered in October 2010 with an incredibly strong slate of cross-demographic animated programming. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was the breakout hit while the new Transformers and G.I. Joe shows continued existing franchises with aplomb. With the loss of the network as an avenue of release (Discovery Family Channel is still home to their more popular shows, but it’s just not the same), Hasbro Studios has dropped their newest series on YouTube and Netflix. As good as the series are (and they are quite good), it’s also hard to shake the sense that they’re derivative and playing far safer than some of those first products of the newly rejuvenated Hasbro Studios on the Hub.
After a series of successful direct-to-video movies, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Equestria Girls got a series of their own. Like the movies, the new My Little Pony Equestria Girls series is set at Canterlot High, where Sunset Shimmer, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie learn a lot of heartwarming lessons about friendship. Unlike the main Friendship is Magic series, Equestria Girls uses extremely short 3-5 minute mini-episodes, and while one might bemoan the ever-shrinking attention span of an average TV viewer, these newer episodes are surprisingly refreshing because the short format means an episode can’t afford any filler or padding. DC Super Hero Girls uses this mini-episode format quite effectively, as did Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars shorts all those years ago.
The initial batch of episodes provided for review vary in quality, as one might expect; none of them are bad but some end up being more enjoyable than others. It’s always fun to hang out with the Ponies, since all the characters are essentially unchanged from what they are in Friendship is Magic. As with the movies, the addition of Sunset Shimmer shakes up expectations in any given episode, even if the redemption arc that covered the first three movies is fully resolved. Her defining trait is being the perennial outsider, which is an odd role to play in a show that’s fundamentally about friendship and might be why she remains so interesting. The opening episode of the series, “Sunset Shimmer’s Fine Line” (embedded below) is one of the best episodes of the ones provided for review, while also demonstrating the way Sunset Shimmer can fit into the main group. While it is a conventional story of friendship, it’s also telling that Sunset just assumed that none of her friends would be interested in her video game.
Like the original show, there are a number of episodes that showcase an original song, though the extremely short running time means that the miniature music video is the entire episode (and thus has to communicate much more than the musical montages on the TV series). The music remains catchy-if-forgettable in the way a lot of the music in the latest movies have been, but they’re a nice change of pace from the more dialogue-centric episodes.
I’m not sure any spin-off series could capture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was the launch of Friendship is Magic, which means Equestria Girls would suffer in comparison no matter how good it was. As it is, it’s certainly well-crafted enough to avoid the overall sensation of being derivative.
My Little Pony Equestria Girls is available for streaming now on YouTube.
The best thing about the Hasbro Studios shows is that the creators knew full well that a toy-based TV show won’t help toy sales if the show sucks. I don’t envy the producers of Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters for their task of crafting a TV show out of a toy that’s fundamentally kind of dumb and has nothing suggesting a narrative in the way G.I. Joe or the Transformers do (or even Barbie, if I’m allowed to cite the competition). The show settles on turning the character into a teenaged superhero and adds some partners to form something that feels like a good mash-up of the teenage superhero dynamics of Spider-Man with the super-team dynamics of the Avengers (if I’m allowed to cite the competition again). It’s a solid effort, though also one that frequently falls into the ever-deepening ruts carved out by the glut of superhero shows and movies.
Jake Armstrong is an overachieving high school student paired with the nerdy Nathan Park and the jock Ricardo Perez. An accident in a facility owned by the mega-corporation Rook Industries leads the trio to gain super powers based on the miracle element “flexarium,” which ultimately leads them into conflict with a giant rocky monster also mutated by flexarium exposure and into an employment relationship with Jonathan Rook, the mercurial CEO of Rook Industries. As so many other teenaged superheroes before them discover, super powers also tend to come with problems of their own, including the usual work-life balance and secret identity issues. It also doesn’t help that Scott Menville’s performance as Jake is just a little too evocative of his Robin on the original Teen Titans cartoon. It’s not that it’s a bad performance on its own, but occasionally a line reading echoes Robin just a little too closely and creates a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance (especially since Scott Menville’s Robin is far better known these days in the Teen Titans Go! version).
Fundamentally, the incredible familiarity is the real weakness of Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters. No matter how good it is, nearly everything in it is going to remind you of something else if you’ve spent any time at all with superheroes in the modern age (and, since geeks have conquered the entertainment world, everyone has spent time with superheroes in the modern age). It takes until the last act of the first episode for the show to start zagging when you expect it to zig, and the “secret identity” dynamics played between Jake and his father are way too worn out to be interesting. It would have been a real surprise if Jake came clean to his father immediately, just to see how that might have shaken up the superhero formula. The earliest episodes also start establishing an uninspiring big mystery/conspiracy theory. The biggest surprise the show could possibly offer would be to reveal that the big mystery actually isn’t one, and that Jonathan Rook is exactly what he seems to be: a slightly off-kilter but fundamentally benevolent industrial tycoon. Maybe that will be how the show zags in the end, but even in the age of binge-watching and the longer-form storytelling that it enables, I think you have to establish why you’re different and compelling right out of the gate. I’m not entirely certain that Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters quite clears that hurdle.
I’m happy to note that the show’s characters continue the trend of animation to be in the vanguard of minority representation on TV, with the Asian Nathan Park/Wingspan and black/Latino Ricardo Perez/Omni-Mass (neither of whom presents the smallest trace of an accent). They are joined by Rook’s straight-arrow head-of-security (wonderfully voiced by Keith David) and another vaguely ethnic girl who Jake has a crush on. However, along those lines, I can’t help but notice it’s the blonde white kid that’s the leader of the team (yes I know the original Stretch Armstrong was a blonde white guy, no that’s not a good enough reason), or why it is that Nathan and Ricardo couldn’t have switched archetypes to play against the usual ethnic stereotypes. But these are minor quibbles, and really intended to be an extension of the criticism that the show follows what’s come before a bit too closely. If binge-watching means producers can assume people can watch an entire series of TV at once, then they also need to shift their thinking to assume that they can watch entire seasons of other shows, too, and will need to work that much harder to hammer out their own distinct identity. Based on the three episodes presented for review, I’m not positive that Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters will ever get there.
Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters is available for streaming now on Netflix.