It’s time for a little debunking here. As I mentioned my previous post I was introduced to MLPFIM through my son. Before the introduction, I’d sampled quite a few of his preferred programs and found widely varying qualities of writing, artwork and dialog. I also managed to dig up shows that I had enjoyed as a child (Still looking for Kukla Fran and Ollie, by the way). My thought was that he’d enjoy watching what used to hold the old man’s attention at his age.
It didn’t work out that way. They hadn’t aged well. It seems like children’s television producers have learned in the intervening years that making a good kids show takes more than just stringing small words together and using lots of primary colors. I don’t have any memories of my parents watching my shows with me when I was a kid. Now I see why. These were mono-level shows, aimed squarely at kids and nobody else.
The trend in recent years has been to create movies and TV shows that work on more than one level. The parents and kids may not laugh at the same gags, but everybody’s happy. The most obvious way is to slip in some double entendre here and there and trust that it’ll go over the kid’s heads. That’s risky, and outlets like Disney, PBS, and Hasbro tend to avoid it. What you can also do is slip in cultural references for the grown ups. Seeing these are a dead giveaway that the producers knew people in the voting age bracket (or older) would be watching. There can also be plot devices that most kids won’t have any experience with but grown-ups will appreciate. For example, having a character go to assertiveness training.
Before seeing it, I didn’t have much interest in MLP. I’d had the occasional brief exposure to the first generation back in its day, and didn’t really have any reason to believe that any of the subsequent reboots were all that different. Needless to say, my ignorance was fixed once I sat down long enough to actually absorb some details.
The penny dropped midway through the first season. The ponies are lining up for a race, sporting their racing numbers. One of the extras has a 00. Ok, I thought, that’s a bit weird. Then Twilight Sparkle, the resident nerd, shows up with the number 42. Yes, 42, the answer to life the universe and everything.
I found my self thinking. All the numbers are one or two digits, so there’s a 1% chance that this is a coincidence, but that sure as heck looks like a Hitchhikers reference to me. That was a shot was aimed directly over the 7 year old’s head and directly at me. The argument that maybe references have been slipped in as a response to the growth of the brony community don’t really hold water here. I’m guessing this episode was in the can before the premier even aired.
After that I started paying attention. Playing “spot the homage” has become part of the fun of the show. Here are just a few, and I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch. As a big nerd, I’ve never been the most well-connected to popular culture. During my time in graduate school, I may as well have been hiding out in a bunker. I think some Spears chick got popular. Did I really miss anything? Even with my limited cultural vocabulary, I caught:
- The Police
- The A-Team
- Dr. Who
- The Music Man
- The Benny Hill Show
That’s right, I said Benny Hill, not exactly the kind of show I’d expect a kid under 10 to be aware of. For that matter, your typical 20 something has probably never heard of the show.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a kid’s show, with morals about not jumping to conclusions, and the importance of empathy, and when you should and should not show off your special skills, and the power of forgiveness, and the careful balance between being assertive and being a bully. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that it’s “just” a kid’s show when there are gags clearly aimed at the grownups, and themes that, while not sexual in nature, are still something an adult could relate to.
Go back and watch the first season of The Simpsons sometime. There’s nothing I wouldn’t let my kid watch, and Bart even learns some valuable lessons about sharing and being a good brother. This was a show that was made for adults, but still had a level accessible to children. The show has evolved since then, but my point stands. When a show works on multiple levels in this way, it's probably not an accident.