This is my third attempt the write this journal. When you're trying to explain your feelings for an entire season's worth of content, it can quickly get out of hand and turn into a wall of text- as befell my first two attempts.
I'm going to do my best to summarize my thoughts on Season 4 in a few specific areas. That being the case, I will not explain every factor or reason that something does or does not work for me. If you disagree with me or feel that I didn't offer enough explanation in a particular area, feel free to ask me about it in the comments, but keep in mind: This is just MY OPINION and should be taken with a grain of salt.
So how does Season 4 rate in relation to Seasons 1-3?
To answer this, we'll have to look at some of the primary components of this season. Why don't we start with-
The Season Long Arc
A season long arc is not really anything new to the series. It was certainly hyped up like it was something special, but looking back, season 2 was the only season lacking an arc of some kind. Certainly season 4's arc with the mystery box and keys were referenced in more episodes, but I can't help but question the point. I mean, having the key arc didn't HURT any episodes, but if the box was never revealed and this arc not introduced, very little would have changed this season. In the end, we got the elements of harmony 2.0 and a rather ugly crystal tree castle playset for Twilight and company. It unfolded almost exactly like I suspected it would; introduced in the season opener, then almost forgotten until the finale. Yeah, we got "key episodes" but would the episode have changed significantly if Pinkie DIDN'T get the rubber chicken at the end? There wasn't any clever hints or a relevant underlying theme, (The theme of friendship doesn't count. The show's been doing that since day one.) and it doesn't even take advantage of the opportunity to expand the show's lore.
If you're not going to do something right, then why bother do it at all?
Overall: Miss. (Doubly so for the botched multi-season "Equestria Games" arc, but you guys already know how I feel about that. )
No, unfortunately we're not talking about the Legend of Zelda.
Again, if you've been reading my reviews you'll know from the beginning I wasn't too keen on this development. But now we've had a whole season to flesh out Twilight's character, to define her new role, to not only explore what it means to be an Alicorn Princess, but explore how this life changing experience affects her at a personal level.
So how did season 4 do?
Well, apparently only Meghan McCarthy got the memo that one of the main characters changed race and became a Princess. Because aside from the opener and finale episodes, the writers have seemingly gone out of their way to ignore Twilight's transformation. Sure, once every six or seven episodes Twilight would take flight for a few moments, but overall this was just... bizarre. "Don't worry! Twilight doesn't change!" If you simply ignore character changes that by their very nature require change to the status quo, then sure Twilight doesn't change. But what sense does that make? If anything, Twilight's character has actually regressed. It's almost like the writers had this change suddenly dropped in their lap and had no idea what to do with it. Watching episodes like Testing 1,2,3, made me a little sad, because it was one of the rare moments this season that Twilight was a fun character. What happened to egotistical, geeky, butt-monkey Twilight? It's like they wanted Twilight to set a good example as a leader now that she's a princess, but to do so they felt the need to downplay the negative traits that help define her personality. In the end Twilight is becoming Cadence 2.0. She's just an exposition machine and this is perhaps one of the most important elements for the writers to fix in season 5.
The Rest of the Mane Cast
One element I really liked about season 4 is that every character had at least one standout episode. Or rather, an episode where the character was properly written.
One of the greatest challenges writers have in general is character consistency. Two or more writers may have different ways of writing the same character. This lack of consistency has always been a challenge for the series, even back in season one. But it just seems like since season 3, it's gotten worse. I'm sure there's many factors and reasons why this is the case, I have a theory about one factor specifically.
You see, the story editor is responsible for revising the scripts that come back from the main writers, and editing them for time and consistency. Animation Veteran Rob Renzetti (Who worked on shows like Dexter's Lab, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Samurai Jack, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls to name a few.) handled this job for the first two seasons, then left the staff.
Who took over his job? Meghan McCarthy.
Now I'm sure she's a nice person and she's written some good episodes. But she's also filling the position of Head Writer and Co-Executive Producer not to mention fulfilling these same roles for the Equestria Girls movies . That's got to be a lot of stress. Plus, I think as a writer... she's kinda overrated. Remember during season three how a lot of people were commenting how odd it was that a number of episodes seemed to suddenly end? How characters starting feeling a little off? A few of the writers even disclosed alternate endings that in my opinion would've made for stronger episodes, but cut for time because they wanted to shoehorn in another joke. (I.E: Pinkie staring at the mailbox in Wonderbolt Academy) These issues fall under the Story Editor's responsibility, and I don't think it's a coincidence these issues started popping up when Meghan took over. But to be fair, it was short season and it takes time to adjust to a new role. While I think she's gotten a little better in a few areas, season 4 still has a lot of the same problems as season 3. Under her management, the tone of the show has shifted somewhat too. Instead of character driven stories with a few strong jokes, we've shifted to a much more comedic tone, where characters are more likely to act as their stereotype if the joke needs then too. The jokes used to be built around the characters, now it's the characters being built around the jokes.
Some people like this change, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it, but I just feel like the change makes the show lose its uniqueness. I have no doubt that if FIM wanted to do a Fast and Furious parody now, they'd have no problem throwing in modern gas-powered sports cars, when in the past they would've at least tried to make it fit into the world. It just cheapens the experience for me...
Meghan is a hard worker and should be commended for getting the job done, but I also think she might've taken on too much responsibility and needs to reassign the story editor position to someone else so she can focus on her other roles. My vote would be for Amy Keating Rogers.
Overall: A mixed bag that I would like to see improved on in season 5
Daniel Ingram delivered some fantastic tunes this season. My personal favorite being "Apples to the Core". Understandably though, it can be very challenging to keep creating hits season after season. This season Daniel tried several different styles of music... with mixed results.
Music though, is very subjective, dependent on individual taste and preference.
I don't find talky songs like "Bats" as appealing, as they generally are harder to remember and don't leave much of an impression.
Overall: I didn't find the music as memorable this season, but Daniel definitely hit more than he missed, so I'm giving positive marks in this area.
No much to say here, the animation keeps getting better and better. Twilight's fight with Tirek was amazing and these guys are always pushing the limits of what can be accomplished in flash!
I'm really just scratching the surface of this discussion. We could talk and debate for hours, but let's wrap it up.
The question remains: How does season 4 compare to the rest of the series?
Is better than Season 3? Yes.
Is it better than Season 1 & 2? No. Not even close.
Season four had several of my favorite episodes of the entire series. But it also contained an equal amount of bad episodes. The vast majority of the season was middle of the road at best.
I recently went back and watched a few episodes from the first two seasons. The show has changed a lot. Change can be good. It can keep things from getting stale. It can allow us to expand our understanding of the characters. Twilight acting as a royal dignitary sounds kinda boring, but the opportunity to expand the world into new areas and grow the show's lore could make the payoff well worth the risk. But that's not what happened this season. We just squandered one of the show's best opportunities to grow Twilight as a character. Instead the writers made the baffling decision to essentially ignore this development. Instead of growing the show's lore, we got episodes like Daring Don't and Power Ponies that should've never made it past the head writer (At least not in the state we received them), and make me worry the writers are running out of ideas. (Which after four seasons is completely understandable.) We brought back the morals, but half the time we didn't build our episodes around learning a SPECIFIC lesson, so the majority of the episodes have morals that feel tacked on or interchangeable. We introduced a season long arc, but Meghan McCarthy didn't collaborate with the other writers to make this arc meaningful. All the important episodes in the arc and any Twilight Princess developments were written directly by Meghan. Hopefully the elements I mentioned will be improved upon in Season 5.
Because I've been picking this season apart, you might get the impression that I hated it. I assure you that's not the case. There were a lot of things I really enjoyed and I don't regret watching the season in the least. Whether something is good or bad depends on the individual. If I say an episode sucks, that just means that I didn't enjoy it. But someone with different tastes might love it for aspects that he or she finds appealing. As long as the show keeps putting out gems like "Testing Testing 1,2,3" and "Pinkie Pride" it will be well worth having to sit through some mediocre episodes. Just like last season, the finale ended with the insinuation of change. I truly am interested to see if for the first time, the change will amount to something.
In the end, I still love this show and I want to see where it goes from here.