Review: "Littlest Pet Shop" Stumbles Early, But Recovers Nicely
My honest advice for viewers of the Hub’s newest show, Littlest Pet Shop, is to jump straight to episode 2 and get what you need about the first episode from the pre-credits recap segment. The show is fine, the characters are adorable, and like every other show on the Hub, The Littlest Pet Shop doesn’t forget that people other than the target demographic end up watching these things. Unfortunately, that first episode makes a much rockier start than I think the show needs or deserves.
When Blythe Baxter’s pilot father accepts a promotion, the pair move to the big city in an apartment building above the Littlest Pet Shop of the title. (Mom is absent). There, Blythe makes two discoveries. The first is a dumbwaiter that brings her straight to the pet shop, and the second is that she can suddenly speak to and understand the menagerie of animals that seem to be permanent residents there. Sadly, the Littlest Pet Shop is about to shut its doors permanently thanks to the Largest Ever Pet Shop, a pet megastore where animals are kept in separate pens and can’t hang out together, the treats have no flavor, and the squeaky toys have no squeakers in them. After a heartfelt appeal by the animals of the Littlest Pet Shop, Blythe hits on the idea of putting on a big pet fashion show, with her own clothing designs retailored for pets. She just has to survive the pets’ antics and the scheming of the Biskitt twins, a pair of mean girls who are also the children of the Largest Ever Pet Shop head honcho.
I think the biggest problem I have with the first episode is that it tries to do a bit too much a bit too quickly. George Miller’s famous “7 plus-or-minus 2″ theory about short-term memory retention is applied many places where it shouldn’t be, but I still find it a useful heuristic on how much stuff you can throw at an audience at one time. The first episode of Littlest Pet Shop tries to introduce Blythe and her father, along with her idyllic suburban life and her subsequent move to the city, the title pet shop, the Biskitt twins, and then all seven of the show’s pets. That last addition is the one that kicked my brain into buffer-overflow mode: “No new information can be added at this time, please try again later.”
Even though each character is distinctively colored, and has a dominant, well-defined personality trait, we just have to process too many at one time, especially when the means of introduction for all the pets is a fast-paced, rapidly-cut music video. I still can’t remember each pet’s name without some kind of roadmap, and they often have to do something before I can remember their schtick. I don’t think it’s an accident that there are only six major Ponies, five Pound Puppies, five Autobots in Transformers Prime and only four in Rescue Bots, and five original G.I. Joe Renegades. Going outside the Hub, Justice League took a full 90 minutes of TV time to introduce just its big 7 characters (and did so very gradually), and the first season of Young Justice kept a core of three characters and took multiple episodes to build up a team of six (plus a few rotating guests). I also feel like the characters are a bit too similar in appearance; it’s not easy to pick out each pet’s personality vs. the others just by looking at them, which is not true about the designs of nearly every show I just listed. I also have to add that I’m growing more and more irked by the “Doofus Dad” archetype that lots of sitcoms fall back on, and Blythe’s father doesn’t step into that bear trap as much as he gleefully swan-dives into it head-first.
However, Littlest Pet Shop shakes off this start quickly in the second episode. If the first episode spends all its time frantically setting dominoes in place, the second can tip one domino over and then watch them fall at a more leisurely pace. The first episode is all about setup, but the second can focus more on plot and a bit more characterization (and the fact that you can get all you need from the minute-or-two recap suggests a lot of that setup was really unnecessary). Admittedly, like most of the pets, all the major human characters are mostly defined by a single, dominant personality trait, so “characterization” is really a relative term, but this isn’t meant as a criticism any more than it is for Hub shows like Transformers Rescue Bots or Chuck and Friends. It’s a show for younger viewers, and playing broad is a perfectly valid creative choice to make for that age. Even though the second episode introduces three more supporting characters, it feels like everyone involved (including the seven pets) gets something substantial enough to do to be meaningful to the show as a whole (and, happily, Doofus Dad shuffles offstage for most of the episode). The second episode also happens to be a bit funnier, with the antics of the pets and Blythe’s friends drawing a few laughs and the expected comeuppance of the Biskitt twins being poetically just without feeling unduly cruel. A throwaway at the end of the episode even neatly defangs the prospect of “everyone thinks Blythe is crazy for talking to the pets” plots, which probably gives me more hope than anything else that the show will get even better as it goes.
With its strong fashion theme, I very highly doubt that Littlest Pet Shop is going to manage the same crossover appeal of the Hub’s breakout hit My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This is a show that’s going to be more successful with girls than boys, just as the vehicle-based Transformers Rescue Bots and Chuck and Friends were always going to be more successful with boys than girls. I don’t think this is a bad thing, either, since all three shows are extremely solid and retain enough crossover appeal that people outside the target demographic won’t mind watching them. However, I’m afraid Hub fans hoping for another My Little Pony aren’t going to find it at Littlest Pet Shop.